Question: What is one step an early-stage startup should take to ensure that all the intellectual property it develops is clearly owned by the company?
Find Defendable Intellectual Property
"One painfully surprising discovery a lot of startups run into is that they don't have intellectual property that is actually protectable. They may have a great idea or a cool way of approaching a technology, but that doesn't mean it is protectable and defendable property. Find out early if what you are trying to build will be defendable and worth acquiring before you waste time and money, especially if your exit strategy depends on having protected IP. Meet with an IP attorney early, and make sure you build around their guidance, so you give yourself the best shot at defendable innovation."
Hire an Inexpensive Lawyer for IP
"At Speek, we use a large, well-known law firm (Cooley) for our core corporate needs. However, we leverage an individual intellectual property lawyer for trademarks, patents and other intellectual property needs we come up against. Using a local individual lawyer rather than a law firm for this specific need allows us to do more on the IP side than we could normally afford with a large firm."
"This might not be a popular opinion, but if you're early-stage ("pre" product/market fit territory), then don't worry about intellectual property. It's an expensive process that you really shouldn't worry about until you have the free dollars to properly cover yourself. Make sure you have agreements with your employees stating that anything built under your company is the property of that company, and just focus on growth until you can properly pay for that type of protection. "
Understand the Default Owner
"My company provides content to startups and has found some weird assumptions out there. We once lost a project because a client didn't want to sign a contract that transferred copyright for content we'd produced for him. He assumed he automatically owned it because he paid for the work to be done. The idea of formal paperwork dealing with copyright wasn't just foreign -- it was downright scary! Before you start creating intellectual property (internally or with contractors), you need to understand who automatically owns that IP under the law. Only with that information will you be able to decide what you need to do to protect your company's IP."
Hire an Attorney Specializing in Employment Law
"Strong contracts are an incredibly important investment on which many first-time entrepreneurs skimp. Hire an employment attorney with knowledge of intellectual property rights to draft two separate templates -- one for W2 employees and a separate agreement for independent contractors. Each type has a specific set of items that is needed to ensure it's highly enforceable. In the event that a contractor is located in a foreign country, additional language clarifying international IP rights may be required."
Make Friends With Law Students
"Find a friend in law school who can introduce you to a third year who knows the ins and outs of IP law. Often, law students are looking to hop out of a traditional career path, intern and gain work experience with an early-stage company."
Solidify Employee Contracts
"The best way to clarify ownership of intellectual property is to have it written into the employment contract. Upon hiring, explain that all technology produces for the business is the property of the business and that the employee will not have access to the product if or when the employee leaves the business. Have that conversation, get it in writing, and make sure employees understand and abide by the policy."
Get a Lawyer
"You need a lawyer to draft up initial company contracts. Don't use law student friends -- they haven't practiced and only have an academic understanding of issues. And don't use online resources because they often don't cover finer points, which is what litigation is based off of. Find a lawyer who understand your company and is willing to work with you. Make sure those initial Intellectual Property assignment contracts are airtight. "
Ensure Contracts Are 'Works Made for Hire'
"Ensure you have contracts with all your developers and creative staff that state the work products are "works made for hire." According to the Copyright Act of 1976, this work product will then be the property of the company or entity it was developed for -- you. As long as you've paid for the work product, then it is yours."