A Beginner's Guide to Patents, Trademarks and Copyright

The U.S. government offers many ways for you to safeguard your innovations, but which form of protection do you need?
OPEN Forum Contributor
June 07, 2012

New ideas make the world of business go 'round, and small businesses are no exception. Such ideas can be the lifeblood for these businesses, which are often built around a new invention, product, process, service or idea.

But small-business owners often aren't sure what to do when they have a new idea. Should you get a patent? How can you protect your business interests? What's a trademark, anyway? And is copyright even something that concerns you?

To address those questions and others, here's a primer of the three intellectual property biggies: patents, trademarks and copyrights.

Patents

When you invent something—a new dishwasher motor, for instance—you'll probably want to patent it. A patent is a property right issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that protects anything you invent so that others cannot make, use or sell what you have created.

Patent terms generally last for 20 years from the date of application, though in some unusual circumstances they can date from an earlier related application. U.S. patents apply to inventors in the U.S., U.S. territories and U.S. possessions. Other countries have their own versions of patents, and you'll need to check with those countries if you have an international patent.

Once you know what kind of patent you need, visit the patent process section of The U.S.Patent and Trademark Office and begin your research and application process. You'll have to research existing patents, file an online application and pay all required fees. The fees change regularly, but to give you an idea of the costs involved, the application fee alone costs between $125 and $825, depending on the type of application, and the issue fee is approximately $870. After that, you'll have to pay regular maintenance fees that over time will add up to at least several thousand dollars. While you can complete the patent application process on your own, it's often a good idea to enlist the help of a patent attorney.

Trademarks

Trademarks can cover names, words, logos, symbols, designs, images, phrases and other distinctive elements that identify a particular brand. A "service mark" is like a trademark, but it denotes a distinctive or unique service, rather than goods. So, for instance, a distinctive symbol on the side of a carpet cleaning company's van would be a service mark. Trademarks and service marks also prevent the use of these marks by other companies that might want to sell goods or services by falsely linking them to another company's mark. A shoe company, for instance, couldn't use a symbol resembling the Nike Swoosh to market non-Nike shoes.

While not absolutely necessary, you might consider hiring a private trademark attorney to guide you through the process and help you to avoid potential pitfalls. Once you're ready to begin registering a trademark, visit the "Trademark Process" page of the United States Patent & Trademark Office, which will take you through the required steps. You can search the database for existing trademarks, file an online application, pay all required fees and submit detailed information about your proposed trademark. The USPTO will evaluate your application and if everything is in order eventually grant you the right to use your trademark. Applying for a trademark or service mark costs approximately $275 to $375, depending on the type of application, and the process can take anywhere from one to several years, depending on the basis for your filing and any legal issues or challenges that arise.

Copyright

Copyright protects the authors of original works, including musical, dramatic, literary, artistic and some intellectual works, both published or unpublished. The 1976 Copyright Act grants copyright owners the right to reproduce the protected work, make derivative works, distribute copies of the work, display the work publicly and/or perform the work. Some of the types of works that can be copyrighted include novels, short stories, plays, operas, paintings and art installations.

Copyright protects how something is expressed, rather than the content expressed. In other words, two novels might have similar themes or characters, but if they're written in entirely different styles, there is no copyright violation. Also, titles of works cannot be copyrighted.

Technically, once you create a unique work, you own the copyright. To notify people of this copyright, you can simply write "copyright" and the year on a work, and this is, in itself, legally binding. If you want do something more to establish your copyright, one legally recognized method is to mail the document to yourself, and the postmark will serve as a copyright date for that document. If you'd like more official protection, however, you can register your copyright through the U.S. Copyright Office, which gives you instructions about how to register a document, pay required fees and protect your copyright once it's granted.

Intellectual property is the cornerstone of many small businesses, so it's vital that you understand your rights and responsibilities when it comes to trademarks, patents and copyrights. Having a basic understanding will help you in the quest to create new widgets, design new processes and take your small business to new heights.

Vivian Wagner is a freelance writer in New Concord, Ohio. Vivian blogs via Contently.com.