This article was written by Marsha Kelly.
You’ve seen them all. The ©, the ™, the ®, even the “pat. pending.” What does it all mean? And how can understanding trademarks, patents, and copyrights help to protect your business’s intellectual property?
Once you start to understand the differences between each type of licensing for intellectual property, you can start on working to protect them. In general, copyrights safeguard books and movies, patents protect inventions, and trademarks protect logos and slogans. There are quite a few differences in how they work and how you can protect them.
What is Copyright?
A copyright is primarily for media makers. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, a copyright can be poetry, novels, movies, and architecture, among other works. They protect work presented and fixed in a certain way of presenting it.
Whether or not you register your copyright is entirely up to you. Copyright protection exists for work the moment it is created. You will need to register if you want to bring a lawsuit against someone else for infringement of your work.
Copyright was explained to me in a way that’s hard to forget. Imagine you’re sitting in a classroom, and your teacher is laying out the ideas of famous enlightenment thinkers. Think Voltaire, John Locke, Rousseau, etc. You are entirely free to write these ideas down. Those thinkers detailed ideas that anyone should be allowed to replicate, like constitutional government, which is very popular around the world.
However, once you write down notes on that lesson, you are an author, and technically those notes can be protected under copyright law. You’ve made a work that is fixed in a particular medium that is unique.
You can officially register a copyright at www.copyright.gov. The website estimates that claims made on the web take seven months to process.
What is Patent?
When you think patents, you might picture someone like Edison or Tesla and the inventions that they created. Patents are still used today as a way to protect the works of competing mad scientists for a temporary period lasting from 15 to 20 years in exchange for public disclosure of those works.
Products protected by patents include “manufactured articles,” industrial processes, chemicals, and certain types of designs. Specifically, patents grant the holder “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention that the holder has made. It also allows the holder to exclude others from importing it into the United States. However, granted patents are only effective in the U.S.
The process for obtaining a patent varies based on the type of patent being filed, but it involves sending an application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and getting it approved by an examiner. The office estimates it will take about 16 months to first hear back about initial applications.
You can start an application for your invention at https://www.uspto.gov/patent.
What is Trademarks?
The golden arches, the shape of a cola bottle, the roar of a lion before a film, a McIntosh apple, “Just do it,” all of these are instantly recognizable as belonging to a specific company. That’s what those companies had in mind when they designed them and registered them as trademarks.
There is incredible leeway regarding trademarks you can register. It can be as simple as a logo, a slogan or a brand name. It can also be the shape of a product, a color, a sound, or a smell.
The National Football League’s aggressive enforcement of a certain trademarked nationally televised football tournament final has caused many unlicensed businesses to avoid using the phrase altogether. Trademark protections are why you hear about the “big game” rather than its proper name in ads for hot wings in February.
Trademark protection works in much the same way as copyright protection. Common law rights to a trademark can be established simply with your use of that trademark in commerce.
You don’t need to register, but if you do, the USPTO can guarantee a notice of public ownership of the trademark, a presumption of ownership nationwide, and exclusive use of a mark on goods and services. All of these will give you significant advantages in enforcing protection of that trademark.
You can register a trademark at https://www.uspto.gov/trademark. The USPTO says that the process may take “some months.” After fees are paid to register the trademark, you will have to make regular payments to keep it.
All in all, if you want to ensure that no one replicates your media, invention, or logo, you’ll want to register the respective intellectual property. Each of these processes can take considerable time, and even at the end of that process, your claim may be denied. Websites and services like LegalZoom can help filing those applications. Read my review of LegalZoom patents to get more information. The site even provides a search engine for trademarks, so you can see if your company name is already taken in other states.
Now, even with this much information about intellectual property, you may have a few more questions…
FAQ about Intellectual Property
Q: Can I trademark my logo?
A: As long as it’s attached to a certain brand, of course! However, that may depend on if the patent office believes that it is distinct enough to be able to be trademarked. Feel free to use a search engine to try to discover similar trademarked logos before you file an application.
Q: What are the different types of patents? How do they differ?
A: You can file for three types of patents, utility patents, design patents, plant patents. If you’re reading this guide, it’s doubtful you’ll need to know about plant patents, as those have to do with new and distinct plant varieties.
Utility patents have more to do with practical inventions, and they can be granted to discoverers of new processes, machines, or composition of matter.
Design patents are more about creative processes and can be applied to articles of manufacture (such as a product).
Q: How can I legally put “patent pending” on my products?
A: A provisional application will let you put “patent pending” on your products and services for 12 months, which cannot be extended.
Q: What do symbols like ® and © mean?
A: I thought you’d never ask!
© – Copyright
® – Registered trademark
™ – Trademark
℠ – Service mark (denotes a service)
Marsha Kelly sold her first business for more than a million dollars. She has shared hard-won experiences as a successful serial entrepreneur on her Best4Businesses blog, where she also regularly posts business tips, ideas, and suggestions as well as product reviews for business readers. As a serial entrepreneur who has done “time” in corporate America, Marsha has learned what products and services really work well in business today. You can learn from her experiences to build your business.