Fending Off Counterfeiters

Counterfeiting is a major problem for businesses of all sizes and can seriously damage a small firm that has only one or two products. I stopped by the offices of Jon Dudas, the director of the Patent and Trademark Office, to discuss this and other topics. Following are highlights of our conversation.

Jon Dudas
USPTO Director Jon Dudas (Courtesy USPTO.gov)

Counterfeiting "disproportionately affects small businesses because maybe they do only have one product or one name," Dudas said. "They don't have a diversification that allows them to take losses in a certain area."

And as Dudas noted, "anything that is successful as a product or a name can be successful as a counterfeit."

Because small businesses are so focused on their growth, the PTO has found that small firms often largely ignore a strategy for intellectual property, and that can be a problem -- especially if you operate internationally or on the Internet.

"Small businesses that operate internationally are at higher risk because they are exposed to more markets," Dudas said. "And we've found that small businesses operating on the Internet that have their entire trade dress counterfeited, their product counterfeited. One had a CEO who had a picture of his wife on the box and [counterfeiters] just downloaded off the Internet the entire trade dress of that company's product and copied it."

To help ameliorate the situation, PTO offers a variety of educational initiatives for small businesses:

* Nationwide seminars to encourage small businesses to consider [intellectual property] as part of a business strategy. "It can be strategic to decide not to get a patent or trademark, but we hope at least businesses will consider it," said Dudas. "Don't wait till you're successful to think about IP." The PTO has found that less than one in five small businesses that describe IP as important to them know that they need patents in each country where they do business.

* Independent inventors seminars from the PTO's Office of Independent Inventor Programs.

* A free DVD and a one-stop hotline and Web site. If any business has a question about counterfeiting, call 1-866-999-HALT or visit stopfakes.gov. "We can't represent firms in court, but we have international lawyers who have expertise in different areas and will offer their guidance for free," Dudas said.

* The PTO Depository Library Program. There are nearly 90 of these special libraries across the nation, often housed at universities. There's one in the Baltimore School of Law's library, where there will be a seminar Aug. 7 on researching patent and trademark information.

* Everyday Edisons: The PTO has partnered with a PBS-produced program that is airing in the D.C. metro area. Check the show's Web site to get viewing information for your area. The show documents the development process of 14 inventions and the people who invented them.

By Sharon McLoone |  July 12, 2007; 6:00 AM ET Intellectual Property
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