Trademarks, copyrights and patents can help you protect your intellectual property, but these protections aren’t interchangeable. If you don’t understand the difference between them, you’ll want to do some due diligence to determine which of the three your business needs before you register. Let’s take a closer look at what trademarks, copyrights and patents do and how to figure out if your business needs one or the other — or all three.

Trademarks

Trademarks and copyrights tend to be the most easily confused of the three terms. Even with different registration symbols, ® for trademarks and © for copyrights, it’s easy to presume that a trademark is the same thing as a copyright. Trademarks ensure the visibility of your business to the world. This visibility is found via words, phrases, symbols and designs that distinguish your business.

What qualifies as a trademark? A trademark must be able to properly identify the goods and services of your business. The name of your business, any phrases or taglines associated with it, exclusive logos and even brand mascots may be registered for trademarks.

Many entrepreneurs are eager to start getting their business out into the public eye and noticed as quickly as possible. If they have not filed to register their trademarks at the federal level, however, there is no guarantee that their unique ideas will be safe from plagiarism. Competitors may try to pass their marks off as their own — and they’d be powerless to stop the competitors because no prior exclusive rights were claimed.

How to register for a trademark

It is highly recommended that you conduct a trademark name search before filing to register a trademark. You can use the trademark database from The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to view registered and pending trademark applications and ensure you are not accidentally infringing on similar trademarks from other small business owners.

If the mark is available, you may file a trademark application for federal registration. Remember to include the nonrefundable filing fee with your application. Once you’ve submitted your application, it’s good practice to use a trademark watch service. Should anyone try to potentially infringe upon the mark, a trademark watch service will provide you with a detailed report on any findings. This will allow you to take action and quickly respond to protect your mark.

Copyrights

Copyrights, much like trademarks, are a form of intellectual property protection. As stated by the United States Copyright Office, a copyright protects original works of authorship. These works may include but are not limited to the following:

  • Literary works (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, articles, periodicals)
  • Performing arts (music, lyrics, sound recordings, scripts, stage plays)
  • Visual arts (artwork, illustrations, jewelry, fabric)
  • Motion pictures (movies, TV shows, video games, animation, videos)
  • Photographs (news, wedding and family photos as well as selfies)
  • Digital content (computer programs, databases, blogs, websites)
  • Architectural works (buildings, architectural plans, drawings)

How to register for a copyright

Are you ready for a fun fact about copyrights? A copyright exists the moment you create original work. That’s right! The moment an entrepreneur pens a poem, draws a rough sketch of a skyscraper or writes the lyrics to a new song, they have a copyright.

It takes time and creativity to produce original work, so what happens if it’s not protected? Someone else can catch a glimpse of your work. They may reproduce and distribute it under their name and act as the original creator. Much like with trademarks, you would be powerless to stop the infringement because you did not register the copyright.

This is why it’s crucial that you register a copyright for any original works of authorship. In addition to your application, you will also be required to include a nonreturnable copy (or copies) of the work(s) you plan to register. Keep in mind that registering a copyright is also truly a lifetime investment. A copyright provides long-term protection benefits. These originate from the moment of creation, through the entire lifespan of its creator and extend an additional 70 years after their death.

Patents

Patent law is the strongest law that governs intellectual property. A smaller sum of entrepreneurs will apply for a patent. A patent is not a unique word, design or phrase that identifies a business. A patent is not an original creative work, like a TV show or sculpture. A patent is the grant of a property right to their inventors. It protects an invention’s mechanisms, principles and components.

There is a bit of prep work required before applying for a patent. According to the USPTO, only an inventor who “invents or discovers any new or useful process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter or any new and useful improvement thereof” may obtain a patent.

How to register for a patent

Much like with a trademark, entrepreneurs may conduct a search of all previous public invention disclosures to see if their invention is patentable. You’ll be able to see if your invention (or an extremely similar one) has already been made available to the public. If it hasn’t, you may move on to begin the patent application process.

Do you know which category your invention falls under? It’s critical that you know your category before you apply for a patent, as this will impact the overall application process.

According to the USPTO, there are three primary patent categories:

1. Utility patents: One of the most commonly filed categories, utility patents are designated for inventions that are considered a useful process, machine, article of manufacture, composition of matter or new or useful improvement.

2. Design patents: This is a patent for inventors of original and ornamental designs for an article of manufacture.

3. Plant patents: If you have discovered or asexually reproduced a new variety of plant, you may file for its own plant patent.

Once you have an understanding of your patent’s category, you will need to determine if you will file a provisional or non-provisional application. Provisional applications are a lower-cost patent filing, but the patent’s category will ultimately determine your application method. It is highly recommended that you check in with the USPTO in regards to filing as provisional or non-provisional, and which specific, additional documents will be necessary to include in your initial patent application.  

Getting the right level of protection for your business is the name of the game, when it comes to trademarks, copyrights and patents. So before you make the call and register your business, take the time to understand all three options. And, as always, it’s a good idea to get a trademark attorney’s take on the matter.

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