Whenever it comes to an expanding field, intellectual property law, or IP law, tends to come into play. New ideas and inventions require protections and classifications. Here are some of the key things to address as a healthcare entrepreneur.
Understanding IP Law Basics
The first thing any healthcare entrepreneur needs to know regarding IP law is which legal categories could apply to them. There are four primary categories of intellectual property: copyrights, trademarks, patents, and trade secrets.
Copyrights protect original creative work such as writing, art, and music, and can be used to license this work for production or performance in return for fees. Trademarks, as most consumers are familiar with, identify brands via slogans, brand names, and logos. Patents protect inventions, both in function and design, from infringement and can grant a company a temporary market monopoly if filed successfully. Lastly, trade secrets are what the name implies: confidential information or strategies that grant an advantage in the market by staying secret.
Patents are probably the most useful IP element in the healthcare sector. In the U.S., the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) manages patent applications and has set guidelines on what can qualify.
A patent can be filed for a unique function that a healthcare invention provides, such as a new tool for clinical application, or smart wearables that uniquely interact with a patient’s body. To qualify, the invention must be novel, useful, and non-obvious. Most healthcare-related inventions help people, so the more difficult part becomes being novel and non-obvious.
Another patenting area is in the design of a product. A design patent can be filed that defines how something looks or feels, regardless of its function. This can be highly significant in the medical industry, since a patient’s experience interacting with devices and instruments can have psychological impact and sometimes even affect their likelihood of using a device.
When to Address IP Law
Say you’re a relatively new company just starting out in the healthcare field, but you have a unique idea to bring to market. Funding might be tight at this point; when should you make the investment to consult IP legal advice and potentially file for a patent?
Medicare fraud defense attorneys and medical malpractice lawyers aren’t the only legal experts who can help in the area of healthcare. For entrepreneurs specifically, a patent attorney can go a long way.
J.D. Houvener, an attorney for the Bold Patents Houston law firm, puts it this way:
“Companies reach out to patent attorneys at different stages in their development. However, too early is much better than too late in this case. If you consult a respectable firm early in your process, they will tell you if you’re ready for patent searching and the application process. If not, they can tell you exactly what steps to take to get yourself to that point.”
Waiting too long to get educated on matters of IP law could leave you vulnerable to having your concepts used by other businesses and not having any recourse. It’s hard enough to bring a new healthcare product to market without having to worry about a large company reproducing your idea and beating to the punch with larger infrastructure and resources.
Look at your company and product and ask yourself if your innovation is patentable, or if you should file for copyrights or trademarks at this time. Most of the time, in the entrepreneurship world, your intellectual property is what sets you apart. Make sure to protect it well.