Entrepreneurs of all kinds can benefit from legal protection, but this guide is all about how to protect yourself online. Specifically, we want you to know how to protect your business IP as you sell your course or digital product.
What is IP? How do I legally set myself up as a course creator or digital product business?
We’ll answer these questions and more, so hang with us for just a few minutes.
Right this way. 👇
The Mindset That Helps You Protect Your Business IP
Before we get into the technical steps of protecting your course or product, we want you to understand the mindset behind all of this.
Your work is worth protecting. You’ve studied, practiced, and trained intentionally in order to deliver your course or product. The way you serve your customers or clients is unique because of who you are — and that holds infinite value.
Founder & CEO Marisa Murgatroyd talks about recognizing your brilliance as an online entrepreneur. It’s a message we all need to hear once in a while so we don’t get in our own way. 🙌
We encourage you to step into your power, remember your worth, and remind yourself that what you put out into the world is priceless.
These aren’t just heartwarming words. This is about being a proactive business owner when it comes to the legal stuff. Once you recognize how valuable your work is, you see the reason for investing time, money, and energy into legal contracts, terms, policies, etc.
Now let’s look at what you’re protecting in the first place.
What Do Online Entrepreneurs Have to Protect?
If we could leave you with one message today, it would be: You are responsible for protecting your intellectual property (IP), and doing it doesn’t have to be difficult.
Yes, every single one of your online courses or digital products contains IP. So, when we say “protect your digital course” we mean legally prevent it from being repackaged and resold by a student. The same goes for protecting your digital product.
When you deliver a non-physical product that doesn’t depreciate (or get worn down) over time, it’s hard to tell how people are using it. It’s not like a tee shirt that eventually gets rips and stains. After some time, it’d be hard to profit off of a used tee shirt.
On the other hand, a digital course or product remains in its original state, no matter how many times it’s consumed. There’s no way to track how it might be unlawfully shared with other people by the customer. 😬
This isn’t meant to scare you. It’s unfortunate that some businesses attempt to grow by taking what doesn’t belong to them. But the great news is this is the minority.
Most people are good, honest customers who genuinely want to learn the skill you are teaching or practice the activity you’re facilitating through your digital product or course. But it doesn’t occur to some people that digital products, courses, or content are real business assets.
A small percentage of dishonest folks shouldn’t stop you from creating your value-packed course or product. We encourage to move forward with your plans, so you can help more people on their journeys, while earning a substantial profit.
Let’s stay on this idea of intellectual property a bit longer…
How Does Intellectual Property Relate to Online Business?
Owning Your Intellect
First, what is intellect? Oxford Languages defines intellect as “the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively, especially with regard to abstract or academic matters.”
While this isn’t something you can touch or hold, your intellect is your gold when it comes to your online business.
Whether you’re a business coach who creates digital products or a copywriter who’s building an 8-week course, you own property without realizing it. Although it’s not physical, when you share your abstract ideas, curriculum, social media graphics, methods, etc…you give the world permission to view or “consume” your IP.
The important distinction here is that you are not giving those things away. You maintain ownership of them and, therefore, you can grow your business in your unique way.
Let’s compare this with physical assets…
Understanding Your Boundaries
If you buy a gym membership, do you automatically have the right to bring a dumbbell or yoga mat home with you? 🏋️
Of course not! You understand that this is stealing.
Instead, you enter the gym with full respect for the gym owners, and you honor their boundaries as you complete your workout.
Back to the online world — when your IP makes you money, grows an audience, and gets you lots of attention…it may be tempting for others in your industry to steal your style, messaging, signature framework, etc. They might assume that the only way to build a substantial audience and reach their revenue goals is to copy someone else who’s already achieved those things.
When another entrepreneur goes as far as claiming your ideas as their own, you have the right to defend yourself and your business. You get to take action so that they stop intentionally (or accidentally) claiming your IP.
But here’s the catch: Without clearly defining your business rules or boundaries, your ability to defend yourself weakens.
Your best bet is to clearly define how customers are (and aren’t) allowed to utilize your content, before making it available for purchase. No worries if you’re reading this after you’ve already made sales. You can still protect your business IP moving forward.
Next, let’s look at how to steer clear of drama on the two-way street that is intellectual property.
How Do You Protect Your Business IP?
Dealing with business IP requires mutual boundaries. The same way you want to protect your business IP, so does every other entrepreneur.
Before worrying about other people stealing your IP, make sure you are not mistakenly infringing — or actively breaking the terms of — someone else’s original work.
One great way to prevent infringement on your end is to conduct a trademark clearance search before advertising your new business name, logo, digital product name, online course name, etc.
After the clearance search shows that you’re good to go, you can submit a trademark application with the USPTO. Once you receive confirmation from the USPTO a few months later, you’ll have exclusive usage rights to the names and other identifiers that make your online business what it is. 👍
Another scenario where you can avoid infringement is when you receive coaching or other professional services. Before you make your payment, carefully read through the contract that the coach or service provider presents to you.
This way, you don’t get overly excited about their content or methods, so much so that you share their behind-the-scenes information and unknowingly break your contract with them.
Now to the main question: How do you protect your business IP from consumers or competitors?
Protect Your Business IP Among Your Customers & Audience
Imagine finding out a couple of months after launching your course that one of your customers has taken all of your modules, using them as a professional development initiative for their employer.
In this scenario, they’ve used all your methodologies, co-opted your signature framework, and even ripped off the worksheets you supply to your paying customers.
Imagine how devastated you would be. You’d probably think, “How DARE they use all the content I worked so hard on?!”
Let’s look at specific ways of preventing that stressful situation.
Protect Your Business IP Among Paying Customers
When it comes to setting boundaries with your online course customers or digital product customers, written contracts are a must-have. Make sure your contracts aren’t an after-thought. It’s best to present your contract to each customer during the payment process.
This ensures that your IP is legally protected before entering the work relationship.
If you’re wondering what your contracts should include, then check out this guide on the top clauses to include in your course contract.
Without hitting you with too many details, make a note to include the length of access and a refund policy in your written contract.
Making a concrete decision between lifetime access v. limited access before you make your course available while save you tons of headaches down the line. Some students might expect your course to be available two years from now, while others only want to experience the course as soon as they purchase it.
You can manage everyone’s expectations by defining the length of access within your contract. ⌛
When it comes to your refund policy, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll need to use it. But on the off chance that someone is unhappy with your digital product or it just didn’t include the content they thought it would…be sure to include a highly-specific refund policy in your contract.
If someone purchases your digital product and asks for a refund, do you expect them to delete the file from their computer? Can they ask for a refund at any point in time, or only after 24 hours? Just some food for thought.
Protect Your Business IP Among Your Online Audience
As much as you want to set boundaries with those who pay you or work with you privately, you also want to protect the IP that you share publicly with your online audience.
This includes people who might someday become your customer or student, as well as other accounts who are scoping you out for the sake of competitor research.
People who consume your free content online — Instagram Reels, TikToks, LinkedIn posts — might assume that because you’ve openly shared your tips, tutorials, and stories that they can repurpose them for their own business needs.
Again, this is where trademarks come into play. In addition, you can easily add the copyright symbol to your website and individual pieces of social media content.
Bonus Tip: You can use the ™ symbol before registering your trademark with the USPTO and the ® symbol after registering. Learn more here.
🤷♀️ Of course, adding these symbols to your work might not stop a random stranger from taking a screenshot or reposting your content. But it does serve as proper notice, which you can then legally enforce if there’s an issue.
Another great step to take if you want the law on your side is to add terms and conditions to your website. This way, you can be loud and proud of your website without looking over your shoulder.
What We Covered
At this point, it might seem like you have to take a million different steps to protect your business IP. That’s why we’re here to remind you that once you legally establish yourself, you’ll only have to make small adjustments to your terms, policies, or contracts over time.
We’ve seen it time and time again: The upfront work of legally protecting your digital business is well worth the time, money, and effort.
As you implement our guidance — and use our attorney-drafted contract templates — you can be confident that if anyone ever does infringe on your online course or digital product, you’ll have the power to stop them in their tracks.
Want to prevent legal drama around your courses or digital products? Check out our ready-to-use, lawyer-approved, plug-and-play legal contract templates, so you can grow your business while staying Profitable & Protected™✨
*The information presented in this blog post is for educational & informational purposes only. This should not be a substitute for customized legal advice from a licensed professional in a private setting. If you need legal advice, please consult with an attorney. This is not a law firm.