Per the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office: A trademark protects branding. Think your bakery’s name, logo and signature product names. A patent protects inventions or innovative methods, covering machines, manufactured items and chemical compositions. A copyright protects original literary and artistic works, like website content, menu design and marketing materials. A trade secret is information that provides an economic advantage over competitors that don’t know or use this info. Think recipes, manufacturing processes, customer lists and marketing strategies.
It’s a good idea to get expert guidance from a lawyer, preferably one with intellectual property and food experience. A lawyer can help you identify what assets to protect—and how to best protect them, explains Rosaleen Chou, an attorney with Knobbe Martens in Irvine, California, who focuses on trademark and copyright protection. “Cost is always a concern, so at least cover the bare essentials of protecting your business name,” she says.
Avoid infringement (using intellectual property that’s already claimed and protected) by exploring existing patents and copyrights before making major branding decisions. “Just because you get a domain name or register something with the secretary of state does not mean you can use this name,” Chou says. While bakers can use market research to identify competitors, a lawyer can access special databases and review this information through a legal lens.
Keep dated records of product “blueprints,” or recipes, as well as notes you take while creating products, which can provide proof of concept. In addition, take photos of products, signage and your bakery’s interior. Bakers may consider contracts (such as confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements) with employees, business partners and co-owners to protect special recipes or processes. Chou also suggests limiting access to proprietary information. For example, don’t share a secret recipe digitally. If your bakery has multiple locations, you may make the recipe in one kitchen and distribute the finished product to others.
Once you’ve taken the proper legal steps to protect your bakery brand and its assets, make sure you clearly communicate ownership to employees, vendors, suppliers, consumers and the media. Chou advises putting legal notices, such as the appropriate trademark symbol and copyright notice, on packaging, marketing materials and webpages.