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A Guide For Protecting Your IP Assets: Understanding Copyrights, Trademarks and Patents

If you're anything like most small business owners, you started this venture because you wanted to make a living doing what you love. But as you're probably already aware, passion alone is not enough to survive in the market. As a business owner, you must be vigilant about protecting your business's assets, and some of your most valuable assets is your intellectual property. 

Intellectual property, or "IP," is the creative and literary works, inventions, processes, trade secrets, names, logos, and symbols associated with your business. Understanding your intellectual property rights is the key to protecting your IP and ensuring you reap the fruits of your creative labor. 

That's why, in this article, we will discuss the difference between copyrights, trademarks, and patents, and how they work together to protect various assets of your business!

What is a Copyright?

Copyrights protect original creative works fixed in a tangible form, such as books, articles, songs, photographs, and scripts. The whole point of copyright law is to allow the original author the ability to exploit and benefit from their own creative works. A copyright grants the owner the exclusive rights to perform, share, display, make derivatives of, or license the works.

The rights associated with a copyright are granted the moment a creative work is fixed in a tangible medium. This is known as "common law" copyright. Although rights are technically granted under common law copyright, we like to describe common law copyrights as "All bark, no bite."

You see, the issue comes down to when there might be a copycat out there, or a random third party who uses your work without your permission. The question will be: who created the work first? This is where Copyright Registration comes in. Copyright registration with the United States Copyright Office, is a way to document and put the world on notice and establish conclusive proof of your ownership. It also establishes a means for enforcing your copyright by allowing you to sue infringers in federal court, and collect statutory damages. Registering a copyright is fairly easy and inexpensive, and can be done online through the US Copyright Office's website.

What is a Trademark?

A trademark is some sort of sign or signal, usually a word, phrase, or logo, that identifies the source of goods or services and distinguishes them from the goods or services sold by others. The purpose of a trademark is twofold: (1) protect a business' brand and allowing it to benefit from the goodwill generated by the brand, and (2) help consumers identify the source of the goods or services they are purchasing.

Once you begin using your trademark in commerce, you are granted "common law" rights from the date of first use. However, similar to copyrights, these common law rights are extremely limited. If you're keen on protecting your brand assets, then you will want to register your trademarks to give them more teeth. Once granted a trademark registration by the United States Patent & Trademark Office (the "USPTO"), you will gain the exclusive right to use that mark for the specific goods or services you offer associated with it throughout the entire United States. Additionally, enforcement gets a lot easier by allowing you to bring lawsuits in federal court, and providing you with conclusive evidence from the US Government of your exclusive ownership.

Registering your trademarks is certainly a best practice and savvy business move. Registration is done through the USPTO's website, and you can expect to spend around $250 to $350 for each mark in each class of goods or services associated with your marks. Patience is key, as the review process generally takes about 8-9 months. This could extend if they spot any issues. If all goes smoothly and any hitches are sorted out, your registration will be dated back to your filing day.

But a heads up—if your application is turned down, both your time and money spent on filing fees won't be recoverable. A pro tip? It's usually smart to consult with a trademark attorney who can help you with a thorough search, a solid filing strategy, and whether pursuing registration is smart for you right from the get-go.

What is a Patent?

A patent protects inventions, including new and useful processes, machines, compositions of matter like pharmaceuticals, and nonobvious improvements to all of the above. The purpose of patents is to encourage innovation by protecting inventors. You must formally apply for and be granted a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to enjoy the rights that come with having a patent. 

There are three different types of patents:

  • A utility patent covers the creation of inventions like a new or improved process, product, or machine.

  • A plant patent protects a new or unique plant's distinct characteristics from being copied or sold by others.

  • A design patent covers the unique look of a manufactured item. 

Patent paperwork and pen

What are the differences between a copyright, trademark and patent?

With the basics covered above, we wanted to further distinguish these various forms of IP and provider a better understanding of how they're applied practically. Below is a table that compares copyrights, trademarks, and patents side by side for easy comparison.




What are some examples?

Disney's movie Frozen, Taylor Swift's album The Tortured Poets Department, Prince Harry's book Spare

Nike's brand name and swoosh logo for apparel, Coca-Cola's distinctive cursive script for beverages, Apple's brand name for electronics

Douglas Engelbart's computer mouse, The Wright Brothers' airplane, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone

Where do I file my application?

U.S. Copyright Office

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

What are the benefits of protection?

Protects your exclusive right to perform, distribute, and license works and prevents others from using or exploiting the work without your permission

Protects the reputation of your brand and prevents others from using the mark in a way that would cause a likelihood of confusion about the origin of the goods or services

Right to prevent others from making, selling, or using your invention

How long do these rights last?

Author's life plus 70 years

As long as the mark is used in commerce and maintenance fees are paid

20 years (Note: maintenance fees are required for utility patents but not for design or plant patents.)

Which intellectual property rights are right for my business?

Small business owners who understanding and prioritize registrations to their copyrights, trademarks, and patents have an advantage over those who do not. Depending on your business and what you create, you may need to file for all three forms of protection at some point in your journey. We're here to help you determine how to best protect your intellectual property rights so that you enjoy the fruits of your labor for years to come. Schedule a time to talk with us to get personalized advice on protecting your intellectual property today!

*Disclaimer: The above information is for general educational purposes only. Nothing in this blog article should be taken as legal advice. Reading this article does not form an attorney-client relationship with us. An attorney-client relationship is formed through a signed engagement agreement. If you would like further information, we would love to help you out! Feel free to reach out with any questions or schedule a free consultation with us through our booking calendar.

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