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How to protect your intellectual property online

Content. It’s the lifeblood of every information and education-based business. It shows the world your expertise, gives your brand its voice and brings in your business income.

That means it needs protection.

But how do you protect intellectual property online when anyone and everyone can copy your content?

In this blog, Sarah Cordiner, a long-time Thinkific Expert and award-winning online course creator, shares her tips on how to protect your intellectual property online.

We also hear from two intellectual property experts and Think In Color 2021 speakers – Yasmine Salem Hamdan, an intellectual property lawyer, and Rosezena Pierce, a trademark and business attorney – to learn what every digital entrepreneur needs to know about creating and protecting your intellectual property.

Here we’ll cover intellectual property basics – including what it is, why it’s important and how to protect your intellectual property online.

Editor’s note: this article is for informational purposes only. Please consult a qualified legal professional before relying solely on the advice shared below.

What is intellectual property and why does it matter for course creators?

Intellectual property is anything you create using your mind, including a story, artwork, invention or online course. Like any other type of property, intellectual property can be bought, sold and owned by multiple people. It can also be stolen.

This means anything you write, make or produce can be classed as your intellectual property.

Intellectual property includes:

  • Your online course content
  • Your videos and online resources
  • The names of your products or brands
  • The design or look of your products

Yasmine, an Intellectual property lawyer and founder of Coaches and Company explains: “Intellectual property is the intangible creations of the human intellect.”

According to Yasmine, it helps to compare intellectual property to traditional property. Traditional property includes physical, tangible assets like a car, a computer, a house and a piece of land. These are tangible assets that you can touch, hold and build on. This is what people usually think of when you talk about property.

Intellectual property is a little different. These are intangible assets that hold value. They can’t necessarily be held or touched but they’re hugely valuable, sometimes many times more valuable than physical assets.

Related: How To Avoid Copyright Infringement

Why is it important to protect intellectual property online?

Gone are the days when the value of your business was tied up in physical inventory and equipment. Today, few course creators and infopreneurs have a brick and mortar business with products that you can touch and hold.

Instead, if you’re a digital entrepreneur creating products like online courses, the value of your business is going to lie almost entirely in your intellectual property assets. That means protecting those assets needs to be a priority for your business.

Rosezena Pierce, a trademark and business attorney and business coach with over 118,000 followers on Instagram, explains: “If it’s worth building, it should be worth securing.”

“I always ask people, would you build a house on land you don’t own?… When building a brand, you wanna make sure that you are securing your brand before you even start to build it.”

If you don’t secure your intellectual property in the very first days of starting a business, you risk losing the money, the time and the resources you have invested to build your brand.

How to Protect Intellectual Property Online

With this in mind, let’s take a look at ways you can protect your intellectual property online and key examples to show you exactly how to do it.

Types of intellectual property

When you’re getting to grips with intellectual property online, it’s important to know the different ways you can protect your intellectual property and what you need to do to make sure your business is covered.

First up, there are two key types of intellectual property: copyright assets and trademark assets.

Copyright assets

Copyright is a form of law that helps protect your creative works. If you have an online course or course curriculum, you can protect this using copyright.

Under copyright law, the copyright for a creation belongs to the creator.

For entrepreneurs, this is important because copyright law covers any creative work done for your business. That means, if you outsource the design of your brand logo to a graphic designer, they are the automatic copyright owner of your logo.

If you’re running a business and outsourcing tasks, it’s important to make sure that you have the rights to any assets that are produced for your business. To do this, you need to get a formal agreement expressed in writing that confirms that the owner of the copyright transfers the rights to you.

The same principle applies for photographers, blog writers and any other content creators – if someone is producing assets for your business, you need to make sure that you have the copyright for those assets.

Copyright is shown using the © symbol.

On your website, you can include a copyright notice to flag that you own the rights to the content. This should include the copyright symbol or the word ‘copyright’, the year you release the content and the name of your business.

Here is an example from the Thinkific site:

Example of intellectual property copyright tag on Thinkific's Website

Tip: You don’t have to use the © symbol in order to claim copyright. You still have rights in your content, even if you don’t use the symbol.

Trademark assets

Technically speaking, a trademark is a source identifier for consumers to relate back to where a service or product comes from.

There are four different types of trademarks:

  • A word or name
  • A phrase or slogan
  • A symbol or a logo
  • A sound like a tune, saying or jingle

Your trademark kicks in as soon as you begin using any of these assets commercially.

For course creators, that means that as soon as you start using your brand name and logo when selling your course content, you start using your trademark.

If your brand name is just in your head or you’re using it for your social media or domain name, you don’t have the rights to it. It needs to be used commercially for it to count as a trademark.

The trademark symbols are: ™ and ®

The ™ symbol is used if you have not yet registered your trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (US PTO).

If you have registered your trademark with the US PTO, you should use the ® symbol.

It can take a while to get a trademark registered with the US PTO. If you’ve applied for your trademark but it hasn’t been registered yet, you should use the ™ symbol while your application is pending.

The difference between copyright and trademark assets

Simply put, a trademark is the identifier for a product – think about it like the label on what is being sold. A trademark is the name of your company, the name of your brand, your slogan or tagline and even your logo.

The copyright is the content – any photos, videos, audio content, written content, emails and more.

Yasmine has a really good way to explain it:

A trademark is the label. It’s the first thing that people interact with when they encounter your product or when they encounter your course. The copyright assets are what’s inside. They’re the meat of what you’re selling, including the course content, resources, videos and more.

Want to see how intellectual property works in the real world? Here’s an example.

Intellectual property example: Nike

Rosezena’s favorite example for helping to understand how to protect intellectual property is Nike. As a multi-billion dollar brand, Nike has their intellectual property sewn up tight.

Here’s how it works…

Nike is the company’s name. This is a trademark that’s registered with the US PTO.

Nike also has a trademark for their now-famous slogan ‘Just Do It’ and another trademark for their logo, the swoosh symbol.

All three of these trademarks are separate, independent trademarks in their own right: Nike is a trademark, Just do it is a trademark, the swoosh symbol is a trademark.

Whether it’s on a shirt or shoes or an advert, Nike can choose whether these trademarks exist independently, in pairs or as a group. And no one else can legally use any of these three things for their brand.

When you’re trademarking your business, you can choose to file your name and your logo together but that means it’s the only trademark you own for your business. This becomes a design mark, so you’ll have to continue to use your name and logo together to be protected under the trademark registration.

The better option is to follow Nike’s example and register them as separate trademarks. Though it’s more expensive, it gives you greater flexibility and broader rights for your business.

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Protect your intellectual property online as a course creator: Step-by-step example

If you’re just starting out with your online course business, the issue of how to protect your intellectual property might seem confusing. You need to know exactly what to copyright, what to trademark and how the whole process works.

Yasmine has a really helpful example you can use as a step-by-step guide for understanding intellectual property for course creators:

Meet Sheila the course creator

Sheila is a personal stylist and personal shopper. She realized that working one-on-one with clients meant repeating the same concepts and the same principles over and over. It also meant she was limited in the number of clients she could take on at one time. To solve the issue, Sheila decided to create an online course.

Sheila calls her course ‘From Blah to Bam’. The course guides you through Sheila’s signature methodology for curating a closet that showcases your personality and boosts your confidence. The course includes five video training content modules, as well as a personal style audit workbook and a closet curation checklist and lookbook.

What parts of this course are intellectual property assets, trademark assets and copyright assets?

Sheila’s Trademark Assets

Sheila has a title for her course and she’s providing educational services under this name. The name is original and unique to her business – let’s say it’s called ‘From Blah To Blam’.

Sheila is providing students with access to the course content for ‘From Blah To Blam’, including video training modules, a workbook, lookbook and checklist.

From Blah to Bam is the name of Sheila’s online course and the label that identifies the source of those services within her digital product. That means that From Blah to Bam is the trademark asset for her online course business.

Sheila needs to start using trademark symbols to identify her trademark and to show others the trademark usage. While Sheila is waiting for her trademark to be registered, her course name will look like this: From Blah To Bam™

As it’s her trademark, Sheila has the exclusive right to the use of ‘From Blah To Bam’  in connection with her types of services and her product.

Sheila’s Copyright Assets

As well as trademark assets, there are also copyright assets that fall under your intellectual property as a course creator. Here are Sheila’s copyright assets.

Workbooks and course materials

Within Sheila’s course, there’s a personal style audit workbook in PDF format. Sheila created this workbook, she designed all of the visual and written content and she created the workbook structure. This is original content belonging to Sheila and that means she has copyright ownership over it.

Sheila also created a closet curation checklist and lookbook. The checklist is in PDF format and it was designed and written by Sheila. Again, all of these materials are assets of Sheila and of her course.

In the lookbook, Sheila included photos of certain outfits. She hired a photographer to take and edit the photos. To make sure that Sheila has copyright ownership over these images, the photographer signed a written contract confirming that he transferred the rights to the content to her.

Video training and other assets

The video training for the online course is also a copyright asset that belongs to Sheila. She wrote the content and recorded herself talking on the videos. That means she has the exclusive rights to the use of this video content.

As her business grows, Sheila is going to create many more assets that will be her intellectual property, including:

  • Promotional graphics
  • Photos
  • Social media captions
  • Blog posts
  • Emails
  • Videos
  • Podcasts
  • Audio

There’s a whole range of intellectual property assets that Sheila might create for her business. These are all copyright assets that belong to her and her brand.

What copyright means for Sheila’ business

Sheila has the exclusive rights to the use of her content to publish it, display it, repurpose it, create derivative works, sell it to others, and license it to others.

By selling the course and allowing others to enroll and access that content, Sheila is creating a copyright license in and of itself. She’s providing access to her content to her students.

She’s not saying, “Hey, you can access this and sell it” or “you can share it with others”. Her license to those students is very limited – they can use it themselves and they can access it themselves. That might be for a set period of time or for an unlimited time. It depends on the terms of the license.

With this combination of trademarked assets and copyrighted assets, Sheila is protecting her intellectual property online.

3 Intellectual Property Best Practices

Here are 3 tips from Yasmine and Rosezena to make protecting your intellectual property online easy and straightforward.

  1. Avoid generic or descriptive names

When you’re choosing a name for your online course, stay away from any names that are generic or descriptive.

To use the example of Sheila’s styling business, Sheila should avoid calling her course something directly related to personal styling such as ‘Your personal style course’ or the ‘Closet makeover course’.

You can tell if a trademark is descriptive or generic by asking yourself if your competitors need to use this language to describe their own products or services. If the answer is yes, you need to change the name to be able to protect your intellectual property online.

  1. Make sure the name is unique

To avoid trademark infringement, it’s important to make sure you’re not using a similar name or a similar phrase that’s already being used with related products or services.

Tweaking the name slightly or changing something minor is not enough. For instance, calling Sheila’s company ‘From Blah to Boom’ or ‘From Blah to Blam’ is still infringing on the intellectual property of the company called ‘From Blah to Bam’.

The standard for trademark infringement is not whether or not there’s an identical match, it’s whether or not there’s a likelihood of confusion.

  1. Check the US Patent and Trademark search database

To protect your intellectual property from day 1 and avoid legal problems down the line, make sure you check the US Patent and Trademark Office database to see if any companies are using similar names.

Search for the name of your course, the name of your company and variations of those names too. If someone is already using your brand name or something very similar to it, you need to create a new name.

Even if you’re not based in the US, if you market to US consumers, it’s a good idea to search the US Patent and Trademark search database. Every country has their own version of this database. Make sure that you check the database for the country where your business is based and where the majority of your customers come from.

If you’ve searched the US PTO database and haven’t found any similar matches, it’s also a good idea to search on Google, social media platforms and other locations where you’ll be selling your products such as Amazon or Etsy.

Whenever you can, try to create distinct trademarks. Distinct trademarks will help you stand out from the crowd and allow you to create an additional intellectual property asset. That’s where the value lies for your business.

14 ways to protect intellectual property online

When your Intellectual Property goes online, it’s at risk of getting stolen, copied or accessed by people who haven’t paid for it.

Here are 14 ways to protect your intellectual property online that you can start using immediately.

  1. Get a Trademark

If you’re concerned about the protection of your IP, then consider getting a trademark for your business and your courses. It’s not suitable for every business, and it’s not cheap but it’s worth speaking with a Trademark Attorney to get their opinion on what your options are and how you can protect your intellectual property online.

  1. Make your copyright clear

Consider including a copyright symbol (©) or disclaimer on your content. Although it doesn’t offer extra protection for your intellectual property, it can make people think twice before they reproduce or share your content.

A copyright symbol shows people that your content belongs to you and flags up that they could be in trouble if they try to reproduce it.

Here’s an example from Yasmine’s website:

Example of copyright on Coaches & Company website

  1. Watermark your content

To protect your intellectual property online, add your name and/or website URL or watermark to your training videos and documents. That way, if your content has been shared illegally, it has your logo, face and website. It’s still you who will get the credit, fans and business that may arise from someone watching your content.

Here is an example of a watermark I’ve placed on one of my YouTube videos:

  1. Print & mail your content to yourself

Simply print out your whole course, including the curriculum plan, lesson plans and content; then mail it to yourself as tracked and recorded delivery, then never ever open it. If anyone ever reproduced your content and it went to court for dispute, you have the dated evidence of when your content was created and how long it has been around for. Simple, yet effective.

  1. Time stamp your content

When it comes to online content, don’t forget that if you’re sharing it publicly, this acts as proof that you published it first! Every blog post has a ‘published’ date on it. Every YouTube video, social media status updates, and live stream videos show the original post date too. If a replica piece of content comes out after yours was published, it’s obvious who got it from who.

  1. Show your face

The first way I protect my content is to make almost all of my training in ‘talking head’ video format – literally meaning that it is my face on the screen delivering the training. Regardless of who is watching it and how they obtained it, it’s still me who is clearly the expert. It’s my face, my words, my head, my name that’s being presented to the audience – which means I’m the only one who can get the credit for it.

  1. Make it common knowledge

If you have a ‘saying’, an approach, a process or something you consider yours, don’t ask yourself how you can wrap it up and protect it. Instead, find a way to make it so big and so ‘you’, that no matter where and how it’s used, everybody knows that it’s yours.

Say it in every video, every blog, on your website, in your email signature, every interview you do and everywhere you can in the public eye. Make it undeniably yours, but allow it to ‘belong’ to whoever would like to identify themselves with it too –  after all, this is how you build a community around your brand.

This is precisely how and why I created ‘Edupreneurs’ and defined ‘Edupreneurship’. I wanted to become the undeniable leader of something, but also give away something for others to assume as their own – an identity that they could call theirs.

  1. Keep an eye out for duplicates of your content

Keep a watch on your stuff. I use Google Alerts, which is a completely free Google tool that allows you to enter in various search terms, such as your name and certain words and phrases that you use.

Once set up, Google will email you whenever those words or phrases are published online – then you can check them out and see if you have been plagiarized, properly referenced, or if it’s just a coincidence.

You can also use plagiarism checkers to see if your work has been duplicated anywhere. There are lots out there, but one of them is Copyscape, where you can insert the URL to your blog post for example, and it will then scan the web for matching content.

  1. Have a clear Copyright Policy

You can create your own policies to help guide and educate the public about what is ok and what is not when it comes to your IP. Although this won’t necessarily protect you legally, you can help people understand how to share your content the right way.

Simply write up a very clear list of what is ‘ok’ and ‘not ok’ when it comes to using your content and sharing or reproducing it. Give guidelines such as the types of things they need to ask your permission for and what they can do without written permission.

  1. Use in-built flagging tools on YouTube

If someone has used your content on YouTube without your permission, there’s a process to flag the copyright infringement immediately. Submit a takedown request by filling in the webform available via YouTube Studio. If your claim is found to be true, you could be entitled to the ad revenue generated from the content so the profits come back to you – a big plus for protecting your intellectual property online!

  1. Make your course truly valuable for only one person

A lot of intellectual property issues come from people accessing your content ‘naughtily’ by sharing their login details with each other. This is an especially big problem for course creators. Over time, this can result in losing a significant amount of income.

However, if you make your courses highly interactive, with private exclusive Facebook groups, discussion areas, one-on-one coaching elements, face-to-face training elements, live Q&A webinars and more, it suddenly becomes valuable to just one person – the original enrollee. The most valuable parts of your course simply can’t be shared.

This method won’t eliminate sharing but including these ‘unshareable’ elements reduces the likelihood – and makes your course more valuable to your students.

  1. Don’t hold back

It can be easy to fall into defensive mode when it comes to how to protect your intellectual property online. You might get tempted to lock it all away in an inaccessible knowledge dungeon so it can’t be stolen.

But no matter how worried you are about your intellectual property, don’t hold back all of your knowledge just to stop a small handful of people from getting it. We can become so obsessed with protecting ourselves that we forget about those who we’re trying to help.

Learn how to protect your intellectual property online and then get on with sharing your unique expertise and experience with the world.

  1. Remember, nobody can ever be you

The most wonderful thing about being human is that we’re all so different. People can copy our words, our writing, our ideas and our services, but they can never BE us.

People like people. The way we speak, how we hold ourselves, who we remind them of, how we make them feel in our non-verbal communication and much more. These are all things that can never ever be taken from us.

I’m very aware of the fact that competition grows daily for my business – there are many people who are now trying to take some of my market by using my own content to compete against me. But they will never be me.

Your intellectual property is uniquely yours because it was created by you and ultimately, this is what will draw people to your business. Your mannerisms, style and edge are what will make your business a success and no one can ever steal that from you.

  1. Get professional legal advice

When it comes to how to protect your intellectual property online, when in doubt, consult a legal professional.

If you’re able to hire or book a consultation with a lawyer at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey, it will be a worthwhile investment in your business. They will be able to conduct a legal audit and flag any potential issues with your intellectual property. You can then move forward with a clear plan and a strategy for how to protect your intellectual property online.

When somebody uses your own IP to take money out of your business, it’s a good idea to bring in legal experts immediately.

3 online courses to learn how to protect your Intellectual Property online

Want to learn more about intellectual property and copyright law? Here are 3 Thinkific courses you can take to learn how to protect your intellectual property online and develop a watertight copyright policy so your business is covered.

  1. UK Copyright Essentials

Run by the Association for Cultural Enterprises in the UK, The Cultural Enterprises Academy offers comprehensive training to cultural and heritage organizations, including a basic course on UK copyright law. The course is designed to help you learn how to confidently create, commission and use content.

  1. Canadian Copyright Law

Specially designed for non-lawyers, has a range of online courses on the topic of copyright, including how to obtain permission, legally using images and the basics of Canadian Copyright Law. This is especially helpful if your business is based in Canada or if you’re working with Canadian content creators, graphic designers or other businesses.

  1. Developing a Copyright Policy also has a super useful course to help you develop a copyright policy for your business, including modules on simplifying copyright in your guidelines, tips for sensitizing and educating others and obtaining copyright permissions.

Protecting intellectual property online is a priority for course creators

If you’re producing content for your business, be it training videos, downloadable resources, photographs or anything else, you need to know how to protect your intellectual property online. Your intellectual property is how you will make money for your business so protecting it needs to be a priority from day 1.

Launch your online learning product for free

Use Thinkific to create, market, and sell online courses, communities, and memberships — all from a single platform.

This article on how to protect your intellectual property was originally written July 2017, and was updated June 2022