Inevitably, some part of your small business is going to be built on your intellectual property. Whether it's your invention, branding, or even the jingle you throw into commercials, intellectual property is going to define a major piece of your business, and you need to protect it.
While I think most businesses would agree with me on that point, the trouble is few of them know where to start, or what they should even protect, when it comes to their brand. Patents are pretty obvious, but what does a trademark do, and when would you need to register a copyright? To bring everyone up to speed, here's a quick rundown on the three major types of intellectual property filings - trademarks, copyrights, and patents.
Trademark registration is one of the most common, and straightforward, types of intellectual property protection. According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, there were 1.9 million active certificates of registration in 2013 (Tweet This!). Trademarks are usually registered for logos and branding. You have the right to any mark you use to distinguish your company or product the minute you start using it to market, as long as no one else had already claimed that mark.
Technically, you do not have to register a mark with the USPTO to claim it. So why would you go through the trouble? Registering a trademark with the USPTO makes it a lot easier to enforce your rights to that mark. If someone outside of your home state starts using your logo, for instance, it can be hard to enforce your IP rights without registering. When you start using any sort of unique logo, phrase, symbol, design, or packaging to market your product or service, be sure to register it (Tweet This!).
Copyrights are a little different from patents and trademarks. One of the biggest differences lies in that there is an office that deals solely with copyright registration. But beyond that, copyright law is meant to protect original, creative works -- stuff like music, drama, literature, and art. So if you come up with a jingle to use during commercials, you have a right to its use. You can even file to protect a logo, if it is seen as having enough artistic merit to warrant copyright protection. Any business built on creativity -- like a custom jewelry shop -- should register a copyright for any designs used. Some businesses will also copyright their website's content. Like trademarks, the author or creator of any work does have copyright protection the minute the work is created (Tweet This!). If you ever want to enforce a copyright, you need to register with the US Copyright Office first.
Patents are one of the most well known forms of intellectual property protection and are also notoriously hard to get. According to the USPTO, 290,083 patents were actually issued in 2013, even though there were 1.2 million patent applications pending (Tweet This!). Over 300,000 applications were also rejected.
There are two main types of patents, utility patents and design patents. Utility patents are issued to protect novel, useful inventions, while design patents protect the unique appearance of a functional object -- like the design of a soda bottle. If your business is built on a patentable idea, I recommend you meet with a patent lawyer to make sure your application is filled out properly so it won't be rejected for any mistakes. The USPTO takes its time issuing patents, so the more polished your application, the better.
Intellectual property law is complicated, and many small business owners seem willing to risk their IP if it means avoiding the Patent and Trademark or Copyright offices. However, protecting your intellectual property is still critically important for your business. Logos embody a business's brand. Companies can be built entirely around a design. An invention can easily turn into a business. Protecting your intellectual property now ensures your business, and livelihood, are protected well into the future.
(Image via freedigitalphotos.net)