When and how to protect your startup's intellectual property


What is intellectual property? Should you, as a founder, protect yours at your startup? We'll cover all things IP, including when—and when not—to protect it.
In today’s market, intellectual property can count for a lot. It may even be among your startup’s most valuable assets depending on your industry, and can cost a lot to protect if infringed upon without protection.

So when is it necessary to seek IP protection? Let’s dive in. In this guide, we’ll cover:
  • The pros of and cons of securing your IP for your startup
  • The various types of IP protection you should consider
  • Tips and other considerations when protecting your intellectual property

Pros: Why you should secure IP for your startup

A solid IP strategy can attract investors, partners, and be a part of your business’s competitive advantage. Intellectual property often comes with a tangible monetary value and is used in assessing the value of your company, which is a huge plus if you’re planning on an exit and even if you’re not. 

If you’re fundraising, having secure rights to your IP is seen as an advantage not only in determining the valuation of your company but also in assessing its viability and competitive advantage. If there are multiple players in a crowded and growing market, having secure IP will help you stand out. 

Common use cases for IP protection include:
  • Logos
  • Inventions
  • Business names
  • Software

Cons: Why you shouldn’t secure IP rights for your startup

The downsides of securing IP rights mostly relate to the return on investment; it can be a time-intensive and costly process. 

For example, while filing a patent application typically costs $2,000 to $4,000, the average cost of a patent is $10,000 to $20,000 USD (some sources, such as the American Intellectual Property Legal Association, even cite a higher number at $50,000 for a typical US patent). 

And, in the U.S., it takes on average two years from the filing of a patent application to get it and that doesn’t include the time it takes to write a patent, which takes an average of about 30 to 40 hours just to draft.

So is it worth it? That depends. You’ll want to weigh the cost against the benefits.

In some cases, you’ll lean towards it being necessary. For example, if IP is key to your business model and its competitive advantage, then you may want to protect it. Infringement without protection can be a costly process.

In other cases, your time and money could be better spent elsewhere. For example, if your business doesn’t have a proprietary invention and getting to market fast is key, then you may not need to secure IP. 

But a lot of it can depend on what you need to protect.

The different types of IP protection for a startup


Trademarking protects recognizable words, phrases, or visual markers of companies, such as business names, product names, or logos. 

Cost: Under $1,000
How to obtain: Typically online and you can do it yourself. In the U.S., you can register your trademark through the Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS).


Patents protect inventions and are usually issued by government bodies. There’s often strict criteria as to what can be patented: in the U.S., the three criteria it has to meet are that it’s new, unique, and usable. Other countries have their own criteria, but they typically refer to the same three qualities. 

Cost: Minimum $2,000-4,000 USD, though the average has been cited to be as high as $50,000
How to obtain: The United States Patent and Trademark Office has some documentation you can refer to, but first, you’ll want to search a patent database (such as the United States Patent and Trademark Office Patent Database or Google Patents) to see if your invention has already been patented. If not, you can either learn to write the patent yourself or hire a patent attorney. 


Copyright is legal protection that applies to the protection of creative works, including books, music, and even computer software. Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the product of that idea, or its expression. 

Cost: Free to under $100 
How to obtain: You don’t have to officially register a copyright. Copyright protection is free and automatic but registering provides a certificate that can be used in the court of law as evidence, for cases where it can be hard to prove copyright ownership, and can be done so online with a governing body such as the U.S. Copyright Office.

Trade Secrets

Private information that’s key to a business’s competitive advantage are referred to as trade secrets, and this kind of IP protection is established without having to officially register it. Examples include source code, customer lists, secret recipes. 

Cost: None to variable
How to obtain: All you have to do is make a reasonable effort in concealing information from the public, including but not limited to labeling documents that contain protected information, securing computers, and writing contracts.


IP doesn’t just refer to inventions or creative innovation; it could also more vaguely refer to employee processes and internal knowledge. Non-disclosure agreements, also known as confidentiality agreements, are formal and legally binding documents that protect IP such as trade secrets from being leaked by people who have access to sensitive information including employees, freelancers, and partners.

Cost: Average of about $300 USD
How to obtain: You can hire a lawyer to create one for a fee, use a template, or write one yourself (though in the latter, it’s recommended that you have a lawyer review it). 

Terms of Service / Privacy Policy

While not commonly included in types of IP protection, now that many businesses conduct their business entirely online, your company’s terms of service and privacy policy can also provide IP protection for things that live on your website or app by addressing IP use cases, violations, and allowing you to deactivate accounts or take further action if IP rights are infringed.

Cost: Free to under $500
How to obtain: Include an Intellectual Property Clause in your terms of service. You can have a lawyer write this up; IP lawyers also provide services that review Terms of Service for a lower fee. Keep in mind that in order for this to be valid and enforceable, you need to offer a method for users to accept your terms of service and privacy policy agreement when signing up for your product or service. 

Tips for protecting your IP

Separate your business from your work/job

If you’re starting a business while working a day job, make sure you read the terms of your employment carefully, fine print included. Some businesses are quite strict, allowing no side businesses even off company time, which could mean you need to look for another job. (Although, if you’re established in your career with leverage, it’s possible you may be able to negotiate the terms of your employment.) Some businesses may even have clauses that grant them rights to your intellectual property, even if you worked outside of work hours. Without knowing it, you’re essentially creating something not for yourself, but for your employer, and you’ve already signed the paperwork agreeing to hand it all over. So make sure you understand the terms of your employment.

Other best practices just to be safe:
  • Work on a separate computer from your work computer.
  • Don’t talk about your business at work, not even to your favorite coworkers.
  • Consider forming an LLC or corporation to separate personal assets from assets owned by a separate legal business entity.

Written agreements and confidentiality

A big part of protecting your IP is about having proper contracts in place to make sure that any work is kept confidential from the people who work with and on the business, including: 
  • Employees
  • Consultants/contractors
  • Business partners
We covered NDAs above, but if you work with business partners, you may also want to consider preparing a written agreement early on in the business to outline, in clear terms, who owns any intellectual property. This document, while not legally binding, may come in handy later down the road when varying perceptions of who did what come into play. 

There isn’t worldwide IP protection

IP protection only applies to the geographic jurisdiction that you registered it in. If you conduct your business worldwide, you may want to consider looking into whether or not you should be filing for protection in other regions. 
Let's go over our checklist for understanding intellectual property as a startup founder. Here's what you should keep in mind:
  • Do you have a good sense of whether it's worth it to protect your IP? Not all startups require IP protection, and it's important to understand the geographical implications too.
  • If you do want to protect your IP, what exactly are you looking to protect?
  • Based on the last question, there are several avenues for protecting your intellectual property; know which one(s) are right for you and your business.
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