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TheStreet Open House

Small Businesses Keep Copycats at Bay

PROVIDENCE, R.I. ( TheStreet) -- In a world where imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it's almost a given that big businesses will copy the ideas of entrepreneurs who don't protect their intellectual property.

While securing a patent is the best way to protect intellectual property, applying for a trademark can be effective, too, especially for cash-strapped companies that don't have time or money to wait for a patent.

"The trademark has actually worked well, and by far it's a lot cheaper than hiring a patent attorney ," says Roni Kabessa, managing director of Decor Craft, the Providence, R.I.-based company behind " I Am Not a Paper Cup," a porcelain coffee cup that looks like a paper cup. Kabessa wasn't surprised when several companies, including Starbucks (SBUX), came out with similar products.

"A product creates a trend, and a trend creates copycats," he says. "But we realized that if we create a trademark for it, it actually works better than a patent for marketing purposes . If you go online and research 'I am not a paper cup,' it will come to us. It won't go to Starbucks or anyone else. They can't steal our brand."

Though applying for and securing a patent through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is an expensive process that can take years, Decor Craft's cup was able to get a registered trademark in a matter of months, Kabessa says. (That allowed Decor Craft to issue cease-and-desist letters to companies that tried to use the "I Am Not a Paper Cup" brand.)

Furthermore, while companies are waiting for a registered trademark (denoted by an "R" in a circle), they have the option of establishing a brand by posting "TM" after the name of a product so the public knows the brand is theirs. That's not the case with patents because the phrase "patent pending" doesn't establish ownership.

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