Engineering innovations come in many forms including, mechanical, electrical, chemical, structural, and beyond. Engineering is involved in nearly every tangible invention. RPL’s attorneys have broad experiences in engineering and enjoy working to protect our clients’ engineering inventions.
Engineering innovation can results in intellectual property across any and all of the four IP regimes: patents for securing the exclusive rights to your inventions; trade secrets for protecting the confidential know-how underlying your processes and techniques that can’t be reverse engineered from the customer facing products; copyrights for your written protocols, as well as the creative manner in which you present your innovation to the world through your website, videos, and other marketing materials; and trademarks protecting the branding (e.g., the names, logos, and taglines) that ties each of the previous assets into a valuable business.
It can be important in engineering innovation to assess the patent landscape early in the R&D process so as to more strategically focus your efforts in innovation and product development. Patent searching can be a valuable tool at this stage; a patentability search or patent landscape search can be used to evaluate whether there is white space to innovate a protectable invention in the space; a freedom to operate search can help identify potential infringement issues and help guide the design process to avoid patent infringement. Alternatively, in some engineering inventions, the path to market is so quick and (relatively) painless, that searching may be less important than simply getting to market.
Once a promising course is set, the R&D process can lead to the invention of patentable innovations. Preparing and filing patent applications then helps to claim ownership to those innovations. When the patents issue, they provide the owner the ability to prevent others from making, using, or selling the patented invention by granting the exclusive rights to the invention to the patent owner. This can be especially important in technologies for which the path to market is long and expensive, as can be the case with cutting edge engineering innovations. The innovator has a tough path to market and, without patent protection securing the rights when the innovation finally starts to pay off, there may not be adequate incentive to bring the innovation to market at all. If a copycat can quickly ride your coattails after you prove there is a valuable market, you are putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage without patent protection.
When used correctly, the patents provide exclusive rights in the innovation that help to provide a competitive advantage in the marketplace. As discussed more below, that competitive advantage is used to help build the value in the trademarks that protect the business.
For inventions that are based on, or that incorporate subject matter that is difficult to reverse engineer, trade secret protection is an alternative, and sometimes preferred, mechanism for IP protection. Like patents above, the protection offered by trade secret protection can provide exclusive rights in the innovation that help to provide a competitive advantage and build the value in the trademarks.
There is no registration process for trade secrets, you simply need to maintain the confidentiality of the secret. Using non-disclosure agreements and other confidentiality measures can be helpful in demonstrating the efforts you’ve taken to maintain the confidentiality of a trade secret, but the real key is that trade secret protection is only effective for inventions that competitors won’t be able to figure out based on the public facing aspects of your product and business. And that’s your competitive advantage; if they can’t figure it out, they can’t copy it.
In engineering, it is uncommon for trade secrets to be as important as the patents. It is often the case that engineering inventions can be reverse engineered, the innovation being plain to see in hindsight, even when creative and innovative at the time of the invention. These types of inventions are not good candidates for trade secret protection. In engineering, trade secrets tend to be found in the production methods and other proprietary processes that go on behind closed doors.
Copyrights protect original works of authorship fixed in tangible media. In engineering, copyrights are most often used to protect the licensable protocols you have developed for implementing your technology and processes. Copyrights are also important in protecting your original works of authorship, including your videos, websites, marketing copy, etc.
Although the registration process is not nearly as complex as either the patent or trademark registration processes, it can be helpful to work with an experienced IP attorney to protect your copyrightable materials.
Branding is important anytime a business is selling differentiated goods and services. In engineering businesses, the company’s name is often its most important IP asset, as the name is how the brand will be recognized and the asset that will hold the value of the trust and admiration earned from the customers and the public. But trademarks are implicated in each name, logo, and tagline you bring to market. With each of those marks, it is important to avoid infringing others’ trademark rights through trademark searches and opinions and developing rights in distinctive marks yourself by registering trademarks.
In the long run, the business’s trademarks are often their most valuable IP assets. However, trademarks take time and effort to develop recognition and goodwill in the marketplace. In order to have the space in the marketplace to build that goodwill, the patents and trade secrets need to hold competitors from copying your unique offerings and enable you to build your brand. This is one of many reasons it is important to strategically build a coordinated and thoughtful trademark strategy from the outset of the business or product launch.
RPL’s attorneys have a strong background in the engineering, particularly in civil engineering and environmental engineering. RPL’s owner, Patrick Richards, spent three years of his undergraduate experience working at a civil and environmental engineering firm. Prior to going to law school, RPL attorney Clare Frederick worked as an environmental engineer in the drinking water and solid/hazardous waste practice areas. She worked on projects ranging from the design of chemical feed systems and other improvements at drinking water facilities to landfill design and regulatory compliance.
Engineering businesses are responsible for the objects we interact with on a daily basis. RPL attorneys love to protect the businesses that create the world within which we live.