Copyrights, Trademarks, and Patents
Most businesses own physical property like buildings, equipment, fixtures, and inventory. But your business also owns intellectual property, which might include company names, product names, logos, inventions, designs, artwork, photos, videos, and almost all written material.
This intellectual property can be protected through copyrights, trademarks, and patents. Each is designed to protect a different type of intellectual property: Copyrights protect works of authorship, including artwork; trademarks protect things such as logos and slogans that distinguish your business from others; and patents can protect your company's inventions. The following is an overview of some types of intellectual property; however, you should seek the counsel of an intellectual property attorney to help you navigate this complex area of law.
Your business owns the copyright to "original works of authorship" created by you. This might include written materials such as sales brochures, websites, manuals, photographs, drawings, videos, and musical compositions or recordings.
If you have materials that were created for your business by a third party such as a website created by a consultant the person or company that created those works probably owns the copyright to them unless they signed a work-for-hire agreement or written copyright assignment. The creator may also have given you a license to use the work for certain purposes.
Similarly, if you create works for other people such as taking wedding photographs you own the copyright to those works unless you sign a work -for- hire agreement or assign the copyright to someone else. If you have concerns about copyright ownership and assignments, it's best to consult with a small business or intellectual property attorney.
You also don't have to register your copyrighted works with the U.S. Copyright Office, but registering can have advantages. To learn more about registration, visit the U.S. Copyright Office, www.copyright.gov or consult with an IP attorney.
A trademark is a name, symbol, word, or device used by a company or business to distinguish its products from those of other businesses and to identify the source of the products. A service mark is a trademark of a company that provides services.
You can potentially trademark such things as a brand name, a slogan, or a logo.
You don't have to register a trademark with the federal Patent and Trademark Office to obtain trademark protection, because trademark rights arise through your use of the mark. However, without registering your trademark, you may not be able to claim national ownership of your mark and there are other benefits of registration as well, although not every mark is eligible for federal trademark registration. Learn more at www.uspto.gov.
Before you start using a mark in your business, consider hiring a trademark lawyer to help you evaluate the marks you plan to use.
In addition to federal registration, many states offer trademark or trade name registration. This may protect your business name or marks from being used by other businesses in your state, but it does not offer national protection.
If you have invented useful articles, processes, designs for manufactured items, or new plants, you may be eligible for a patent.
A patent grants an inventor the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling, or importing an invention for a specific period of time. In exchange for these rights, the inventor discloses the invention to the public at the time it is patented. Patent protection is only available if you have applied for, and received a patent from, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
A U.S. patent is only effective in the United States and its possessions and territories. To obtain patent protection in other countries, you must file patent applications in those countries.
To be patentable, an invention must be useful. You can't patent an idea for an invention. In your application, you must be able to submit a complete description of the subject matter of the patent.
There are three types of patents:
- Utility patents are granted to inventors of processes, machines, articles of manufacture, or composition of matter.
- Design patents are for new and non-obvious and ornamental designs for manufactured articles. A design patent protects an object's appearance, but not its structural and functional features.
- Plant patents are for new and distinct varieties of plants.
Once a patent is issued, it is up to the patent's owner to enforce it.
Applying for a patent is a complex process and most inventors hire a patent lawyer or patent agent to assist them with the process. Both have scientific or engineering training and have passed a patent bar exam.