Your intellectual assets are some of the most powerful resources your business has. These assets separate your business from your competition and make you unique – as long as they are protected. Trademarks, copyrights, and patents are methods of protecting your intangibles while publicly providing notice to other businesses or individuals to avoid copying or infringing on your intellectual property rights. But when do you need these protections? How do you get them? And what are they for?
What is a trademark?
Trademarks are exclusive legal protections for names, logos, sounds, and even colors as applied to a category of goods or services. Federally registered trademarks may not be used by others without your permission. Trademark owners do have a legal obligation to police their marks and provide notice to anyone that may be inadvertently or willfully using the mark without permission. Trademarks can be renewed indefinitely as long as the owner can show proof that the mark has been continually used in commerce.
What is a trademark for?
Trademarks operate to distinguish your business, build consumer goodwill and solidify your reputation as a source for the goods or services. In most cases, a trademark is a distinctive word, phrase, logo or design that is associated with or applied to a category of goods or services. Trademarks should not be merely descriptive of the goods or services and generic terms are expressly banned from trademark protection (e.g., such as the term “Supermarket” as applied to a grocery store).
Trademarks must not be confusingly similar to another company’s mark otherwise the U.S. Trademark Office will reject the mark or the opposing owner may proactively move to cancel your mark. For example, the Nike name and Swoosh logo are federally registered trademarks. Trademarks may often be referred to as service marks when applied solely to services such as the NBC tri-tone sound or United Airline’s “Fly the Friendly Skies” slogan. If you are in the business of providing goods or services, then it is strongly recommended that you consult with an intellectual property lawyer to get the best protection in a timely manner.
How do I get a trademark?
For the most part, trademark rights vest upon usage of the mark in interstate commerce (e.g., across state lines). When you select a distinctive mark for your business, you are legally considered the owner of an unregistered trademark under common law trademark law (i.e., limited protections vis-à-vis a federally registered trademark). During this initial use and while your trademark application is being examined by the U.S. Trademark Office, you may use the ™ symbol to provide public notice that you are claiming ownership rights in the mark. The ™ symbol does not have any legal significance and is simply used as a public notification tool. Your ability to halt an infringing action, obtain an injunction or obtain money damages is limited when the mark is an unregistered trademark. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that you take the necessary steps to federally register your trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Once registered, you may use the ® symbol and be entitled to a full range of legal protections for your mark.
When should I get a trademark?
If you are consistently using a non-generic name, logo, or other symbol, you already have an unregistered trademark. This shows your customers that it is yours. To prevent another company from using the goodwill associated with your business – or, worse, tainting your business reputation with low-quality products – you should register your mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as soon as you have finalized the word, phrase, logo and/or design.
What is copyright?
Copyright is the exclusive legal protection that covers an original work of authorship. Copyrights vest upon creation of the work, which means placing the work onto a tangible medium (e.g., applying paint to a canvas or words to a screenplay). Stated otherwise, a copyrighted work must be more than an idea – the idea of painting a scenic mountain is not protectable until one applies the paint to the canvas. A copyright owner holds to right to prevent others from copying, reproducing, displaying or making derivative works unless they expressly provide their permission for such use. A derivative work, for example, would be making a movie based on a book. Copyright protections are not indefinite; most protections last the length of the author’s life plus 70 years. For example, the author of the book Dracula died in 1912, so the copyright protection ended in 1982 and the work entered the public domain, which means it can be freely reproduced and distributed by anyone.
What is copyright for?
Original works are copyrightable materials. “Original” simply means that there must be some modicum of creativity that distinguishes the work from others. Books and e-books, magazine or newspaper articles, software, paintings, music, plays, some websites, and movies, among other things fall under purview of copyright protection. Historical and scientific facts, recipes, ideas, domain names, surnames, inventions, methods, and events are examples where copyright protection would not be appropriate; although some of these things may be protected under trademark or patent law.
How do I copyright my work?
As noted above, copyrights vest upon creation of the work, even if it isn’t published. Similar to trademark law, it can be difficult to enforce your copyright if the work is not registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. In most cases, a copyright application entails a downloadable form, a fee, and a copy of the work submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office. The review process takes about four months to possibly one year. Registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office is definitely a good idea and it is recommended that you have an intellectual property attorney at least do a cursory review of your copyright application prior to submission. If your work is plagiarized, improperly displayed or illicitly distributed then having a registered copyright will strengthen your position in the event you decide to take legal action and file an infringement lawsuit.
What is a patent?
A patent is a legal monopoly for protecting a utilitarian device, system, machine, composition or process. A patent owner has the right to prevent others from making, using, selling or importing a protected invention for a limited time. Utility patents have a term of 20 years and design patents have a term of 14 years from the date of filing.
What is a patent for?
Design patents protect the aesthetic or ornamental, non-functional aspects of a utilitarian object. Utility patents protect useful devices, systems, machines, processes, and compositions of matter that, upon examination by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, are verifiably shown to be new and non-obvious. Almost any product, from Tupperware to iPhones to Vicodin, can be (and often are) patented.
How do I get a patent?
The initial process for obtaining a patent is to prepare and file a patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It is important to realize that a patent is powerful asset that must be written with a variety of audiences in mind (e.g., inventor, investor, licensor, patent examiner, judge, jury, etc.) while meeting a plethora of complex and sometimes arcane rules of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Once a patent application has been filed, a patent examiner will perform a patentability search and determine whether the patent application meets the various standards such as novelty and non-obviousness. The patent owner may publicly assert that the invention is “patent pending” as soon as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office provides a filing receipt, which typically takes a few minutes if the patent application is filed electronically. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a stated goal of examining a patent application and providing a final disposition within about 36 months, but it is not uncommon for the examination process to take longer. If the patent application successfully makes it through the examination process, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will grant an official patent number and the owner will then have a legally enforceable asset.
When should I file a patent?
The U.S. is a “first-to-file” system, so it is imperative that an inventor keep the details of their invention confidential until a patent application has been filed. Also, timing is of the essence to prevent a competitor from winning the race to the Patent Office. The basic requirement to prepare and file a patent application is that the inventor must be able to describe, in sufficient detail, how to make and use the invention to one of “ordinary skill in the art,” which typically means a person versed in the industry to which the invention pertains. For example, technical and industry terms may not need to be defined if such terms are commonly known among those skilled in the art. Further, a prototype of the invention is not necessary nor does the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office required an inventor to perform a patentability search before filing. As soon as you have the aforementioned information, you should contact a registered patent attorney or agent to begin the process. Remember, confidentiality and timely filing are two primary keys to obtaining patent protection for your invention. In view of the complexities of the patent process, retaining an intellectual property lawyer is a vital step to obtaining strong patent protection in an efficient and timely manner.
Whether you are seeking trademark, patent or copyright protection, make sure to document the process carefully, and seek legal advice. The wrong protection or a badly conducted filing can make you vulnerable to legal loopholes or unnecessary rejections from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. With the right intellectual property protections in place, your business will be able to thrive and grow while keeping your competition at arms length.
A critical overview of laws and regulations governing businesses of all sizes.