Life & Business

Life & Business: Rethinking Legal by Patrice Perkins

by Sabrina Smelko


In over a year of interviewing business-owners and entrepreneurs, I’ve found that most of them dread and vacillate over the same thing: the paperwork, contracts, accounting and legal considerations that come with running a business. It’s perhaps not the easiest thing to get passionate about, but in reality, it is arguably the most important thing to get right in order to grow and sustain any business.

Patrice “creative attorney” Perkins of Creative Genius Law® is an Illinois-licensed attorney who knows all too well the legal pitfalls that many business-owners make that can trip them up, and exactly what to do about them. On top of helping her creative-entrepreneur clientele, she offers workshops that aid creative types on how to transition their work from hobby to budding business. And on her blog, Creative Genius Society, she shares legal tips and insight on all things work-life, from complicated legal topics to day-to-day business operations. She really does eat, sleep, and breathe legal — all in the name of helping us with those vital, but sometimes cringe-worthy, things that cannot go unconsidered. (She even offers a free online class, Protect Your Brand in Cyberspace, which helps with exactly what the name suggests).

Today, the super-helpful Patrice is joining us to share her pep-talk-esque advice to help creative business-owners of all kinds understand and consider the importance of legal in three easy-to-digest points. –Sabrina

Portrait photo by Ten Lashon

Taking care of the legal “stuff” is not just about adding one more thing to your lengthy to-do list. It’s about protecting your investments; the blood, sweat and tears you’ve put into your creative work. It’s also about setting you up for major, game-changing opportunities that could supercharge your business and your life.

Let me ask you a question (and I’d like your honest answer). Would you be ready to enter a deal today with a company who inquired about licensing your products? What if a larger brand wanted to collaborate on a super-cool campaign with you? Would you be positioned to say yes? Or, would you have to wing it and pray that everything went a-ok?

Each and every time you wing it, you’re leaving money on the table and selling yourself short. I want more for you! I want you to set yourselves up to building a thriving creative business that you can scale to expand your impact and profits. Most of all, I want you to have the freedom to build a creative business that truly serves you so you can design the life that you want. Those things will happen when you rethink “legal” and focus on upleveling your creative business through intellectual property.

Did you know that intellectual property are actually intangible assets? That’s why it’s important that you tend to them just like you would any other assets in your business. You make sure you have the proper warranties in place for your physical assets, like equipment that you create with (i.e. computers that you use to design, machines that you use for sewing). Why wouldn’t you do the same for your IP?

Let’s dig in.

1. Trademarks

Trademarks are the logos, brand names, and slogans that identify your products or services. They encompass all your brand is, and are vital for brand recognition. Once you own a federal trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, you have the exclusive right to use it as it relates to your product or service, and I’ll tell you a secret: There’s a ton of privilege that comes with owning a trademark. A lot of people don’t realize that once you own the trademark, no one else can own one that’s identical or similar to yours. Even if someone sells a different type of product or service than you, they may still be legally prohibited from using a trademark similar to yours. This is important, because your company is unique, and so too should the image be that represents it.

For example, let’s say that you own an interior decorating company called Creative Influence. Someone else comes along, uses, and wants to register a trademark for a similar name, but they create and sell home decor items. The trademark office may reject their application on the basis that it’s likely that an interior decorating company may also create and sell home decor items. Therefore, the other person cannot use or register the trademark because it would cause confusion with yours. Not everyone who copies does so intentionally, but in a sea of creative entrepreneurs and makers, it’s important to protect what you’ve built. Owning your brand gives you an edge and offers peace of mind that what you’ve built can’t be as easily taken from you.

2. Copyrights

Copyrights relate to any original creation that you’ve put in tangible form. It includes things like photos, illustrations, and literary works, but also creations such as textiles, patterns and sculptures. You own the copyright in your creative work the second that you create it and share it with the world. Owning a copyright doesn’t mean that you have some abstract right, it means you own a very specific bundle of rights which include:

• The right to reproduce your creative work;

• The right to distribute or sell your creative work;

• The right to grant a license for others to distribute or sell your creative work;

• The right to modify your original work, or create a derivative work (i.e. a short film based on a book);

• The right to perform or display the creative work.

And guess what? As a copyright owner, you also own the rights to sell or license those rights to other people, which is vital in today’s Internet-share-society.

Registering with the U.S. Copyright Office has several benefits, but for purposes of our discussion: It creates a clear public record of your copyright ownership and it gives you legal recourse if someone infringes on your work. Plus, copyright protections last the creator’s life plus 70 years — that’s a long time. This is really important for creators, because a lot of times your work builds in value after many years. Taking care of these registrations is a huge way to uplevel your business now, but to also leave a legacy for your family, later.

Registering your copyright ownership with the U.S. Copyright Office is something that you can absolutely handle on your own, especially if you created solo (meaning it wasn’t a joint project). The fee is $35 per registration (not as expensive as most people think)! You can even register groups of creative works together as a series and pay a single fee.

3. Trade Secrets

One of my favorite (and least talked about) forms of intellectual property are trade secrets (hint: one of the world’s most popular trade secrets is actually the Coca-Cola formula). Generally speaking, a trade secret is the secret sauce that gives your business a competitive edge. It could be your jewelry-making process, marketing strategy, or even vendor lists. The way that you protect a trade secret is simple: You keep it a secret. You share with people on a need-to-know basis, password protect computer files, and have people you share your trade secrets with sign a non-disclosure. Trade secrets can last a lifetime — as long as you keep the secret. You can get a jumpstart on protecting your trade secrets by simply making a list of them and then, protecting them in one of the ways I mentioned above.

Now, lets weave this all together. 

Once you’ve taken care of your trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets, you can uplevel your business by leveraging your creativity through licensing. A license is when you sell someone the right to use your brand or creations for specific purposes. People are unlikely to enter licensing deals with you without these legal protections in place because there’s no guarantee for them that you are the actual, legitimate owner (and no real reason for them to pay you for the right to use it). Do you see how not doing this work can translate into leaving money on the table?

A lot of times, creative entrepreneurs see intellectual property as something the “big” companies need to worry about. Or, it’s seen as a waste of time because “people steal ideas” every day. Protecting these three types of intellectual property is not about trying to keep people from stealing your ideas. It’s about giving yourself options for expansion that don’t have to equate with you doing more physical work.

Some of my favorite creative entrepreneurs are upleveling their businesses through their intellectual property:

Whitney English owns the federal trademark for Day Designer and has a licensing deal with Blue Sky Planners to produce a mass market version of her luxe planner with retail distribution at Target. She also has a collaboration with Kayce Hughes, a vintage-inspired and children’s lifestyle brand. Kayce has an exclusive license to distribute a specialty edition of The Day Designer through her website, which attracts a very niche audience. Pretty nifty, right?

Danielle LaPorte owns the federal trademark for The Desire Map and after introducing her book The Desire Map, launched a series of audio products, journals and planners after the same name. She also has a licensing program where women who want to coach based on The Desire Map methodology can license the right to use the brand name, and access to the trade-secret protected methodologies and curriculum. This gives Danielle the opportunity to impact more lives and other women entrepreneurs the opportunity to create businesses based on a brand and method that’s already built a fantastic reputation.

Do you see how rethinking legal can help you uplevel your creative business?

Patrice N. Perkins is the principal attorney of Creative Genius Law® , a business and intellectual property law firm for creative entrepreneurs, innovators and change agents. Patrice has been recognized by the American Bar Association as a “Legal Rebel” for being an innovator in her space. Patrice frequently facilitates workshops and presents at conferences including Chicago Creative Expo, Lake FX, Chicago Artists Coalition, Alt Design Summit, Blogher, and Eat Write Retreat, to name a few. She is the creator of Protect Your Brand in Cyberspace, a free masterclass for creative entrepreneurs available on her blog, Creative Genius Society where she blogs on business and legal topics regularly.

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  • How timely! I need to hear this. Thank you! I’m heading over to Creative Genius Society IMMEDIATELY.

  • Thank you for this information, it is so helpful! This entire website is inspirational and helpful for newbie designers (like myself) who love to create but are afraid/nervous about the business side. I am so thankful for this site!

  • I am a lawyer in New York, New York who represents creative entrepreneurs (film makers) and startups in tech and etc. I hope everyone has thoroughly read Ms. Perkins, Esq. article takes her seriously, because she is correct. I would add that you seriously consider broader protection and therefore power of design patents, too. (No, I am not a patent lawyer.) But, did you know that product designers now are paid more than computer programmers? Adopt a pro-active mindset about using services that Ms. Perkins, Esq. offers, rather than the reactive mindset, and have the law become a pocket book enhancer, rather than a pocket book incinerator! NOW!