How Do I Protect My Website from Imitators?
Let me say at the outset that it’s often not worth getting too hung up on legal protections. If you get to market fast and build up a big enough network of users, imitators will face a significant hurdle. That said, there are several levels of legal protection.
Protecting Your Brand and Content
At a basic level, you don’t want people ripping off your brand or content. At this level, you’ll generally have good protection.
Whether or not you’ve registered your brand with the Patent and Trademark Office, you will usually have some “common law” rights to the names and logos you’ve used to brand your site. If you haven’t registered your brand, you should consider it. It’s not difficult or expensive and it gets you much better protection.
There are also trademark and statutory protections against people registering domain names identical to or similar to your brand for the purpose of confusing people or diverting traffic from your site. These rights aren’t as broad or useful as you’d probably want, but they can be very effective when they apply.
Copyright is your most obvious, but often least useful protection. Copyright prevents someone from simply ripping off the content of your site (text, graphics, music, video). You should put a copyright notice at the bottom of every page of your site.
Protecting Your Innovation
When website owners worry about imitation, they are often most worried about someone imitating their ideas and innovations, not their brand and content. There are some protections here, but they are limited.
Patent is the only way to protect an innovation that will be apparent to people using the site. You should consult a patent lawyer before you assume that there are or aren’t patentable inventions in your site. Be sure to do that quickly, since you need to file at least a provisional patent application within a year of when the invention was first published or in public use.
In addition to patent, you can protect some aspects of the site by trade secret. Anything that’s apparent to someone using the site isn’t secret and therefore can’t be protected this way. But any “secret sauce” in the background (e.g. algorithms that help predict who will be interested in whom or what) can be protected as a trade secret. To do so, you have to take reasonable steps to keep it secret. So it shouldn’t be included in any aspect of the site made available to the general public. That includes things you make available to users and developers, such as APIs. It also includes materials provided to employees, contractors, potential investors, customers, vendors (e.g. hosting service providers) or strategic partners who haven’t signed an NDA. You should follow a consistent policy (consistency is very important) of requiring people to sign an NDA before you disclose anything you want to protect as a trade secret. You should also think about taking sensible steps to prevent unauthorized access, such as good network security, password protection and/or encryption of certain files, disks or servers, and perhaps physical locks on some rooms or cabinets.
Ideally, you should document the steps you’re taking to protect your trade secrets. No need for anything elaborate, but you want to be able to point to it if necessary (and it’s a good way to think things all the way through). It is very important that your plans and policies are realistic and consistently followed. The last thing you want to do is write down a fantastically secure set of policies, file them away somewhere and forget about them. That just creates evidence of what you could have done and didn’t.