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Intellectual Property and Web Site Design

Q: When designing a Web site, how can I protect my ideas?

Concepts and other proprietary information are "trade secrets" as long as you take reasonable steps to guard them, until they become publicly known. If these ideas are particularly sensitive or valuable, any agreements you enter into, such as partnership agreements, should include confidentiality provisions limiting the other company's ability to disclose or make use of the ideas. Recognize, however, that once marketing materials are distributed or a Web site is posted, the design concepts and functionality are there for everyone to see, and no longer subject to trade secret protection.

If the Web site has any associated software that performs new and unique steps or business functions, the software and methods may be patentable. Among the various types of intellectual property protection, a patent is generally the only way to prevent others from making work-alike software or Web site functions.

Materials and Web sites can and should be protected by copyright notices. The intended ownership of copyrights should be spelled out in the agreement, and copyright issues (such as any right of the purchaser to make later modifications to your work, and any retained right to reuse work product for other clients) should be clearly addressed. Copyrights which are perceived as valuable should be registered at the Library of Congress to enhance enforceability.

Most companies want to build value and recognition in their company name and logo, which are "service marks." Web designers may want to negotiate some free advertising - such as recognition and/or inclusion of specified service marks on the materials they designed. In such cases, the agreement should require display of the specified service mark, but should also give the designer the right to have service marks removed from materials or sites if their nature changes.

For more information on intellectual property protection, see the articles on intellectual property protections under "Basics" at:


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