Ask Anyone to name the richest man in America, and they are likely to answer “Bill Gates.” The founder of Microsoft made his fortune not by owning land (called “real property” in the law) or things (“personal property”), but by creating and distributing the results of “brain power,” or what the law calls intellectual property.

Intellectual property takes many forms — patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets — and all but patents are applicable to the meetings industry.

Trademarks are words, phrases, or designs that identify the specific source of a product or service. The words have to be what's called “fanciful,” that is, made up, and not merely descriptive. For instance, Kleenex is a made-up word that describes a brand of tissue manufactured by Kimberly-Clark Corp.

Many companies do not make the effort to properly protect the names that they use to identify their events, and many independent planners don't properly protect their business names. Because the Internet makes every business a virtual global enterprise, failure to register and protect one's name can be a costly misstep — especially if someone else is using the name.

Registering a trademark involves searching databases at the federal and state level to find out if anyone else has an identical or similar mark for the same product or service. The most easily searchable database is maintained by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. If a trademark has not been registered by anyone else, the organization or planner should take steps to register the distinctive words or logo.

Registration can be accomplished online and costs about $350 for each class of products or services for which protection is sought. While obtaining a trademark can be a do-it-yourself project, it's best to consult with a knowledgeable lawyer.

Once a trademark has been submitted to the USPTO, a staff lawyer will research the application and may seek additional information. Once all information is provided, the application is published in an official agency document to see if any existing or potential trademark holder objects to the mark being registered. Registration can take a year or more but, once done, can provide a lifetime of protection.

More on Copyrights

Copyrights, another form of intellectual property, do not require registration or approval by any federal or state agency. One obtains copyright protection merely by writing words or music, or performing a song or a speech, or shooting a photograph or a film. Copyright protection is automatically granted to the author, unless the author is an employee working within the scope of his or her job, in which case the copyright belongs to the employer. But if the author is an independent contractor (e.g., someone hired to produce a brochure or a film for you), the contractor owns the copyright unless the contract with the client specifies otherwise.

Although it is not required, it's a good idea to put a copyright notice on a document; the notice consists of the word “copyright” (or the symbol ©), the year of first publication, and the name of the copyright holder.

Copyright protection lasts for 95 years, does not have to be renewed, and can protect the owner against someone making unapproved copies (e.g., photocopying a newsletter) or playing music at a meeting without paying for the right to do so.

Music Licensing Basics

Another intellectual property area that planners, especially those who organize trade shows and events, need to be aware of is music licensing.

The courts have held that playing music (live or recorded) constitutes a “performance” for which the artist and songwriter must be compensated. Three major performing rights organizations administer music copyrights: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Licenses to play live or recorded music at a meeting or event must be obtained from all three. Each maintains a Web site with further information. (See box below.)

Because intellectual property is valuable and the penalties for infringing on other's rights can be substantial, make sure that you take steps to ensure that your intellectual output — and that of your company — is properly protected.

James M. Goldberg is a principal in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Goldberg & Associates PLLC. His practice focuses on representing associations, corporations, and independent meeting professionals in their dealings with hotels and other suppliers. He is the author of The Meeting Planner's Legal Handbook.

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