The Ins and Outs of Trademark, Copyright, and Patents for New Businesses
"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” - John Steinbeck
"Intellectual Property protection is like learning how to handle the rabbits," says Tom Druan of Druan IP Law. "Sometimes there are idea-filing requirements (patents), sometimes it helps to register the ideas (trademarks and copyrights), and sometimes it’s best to keep quiet about the ideas (trade secrets)."
Trademark, copyright, and patent laws keep your creativity safe, but if you’re new to this, here is a guide to which is which—and which you need.
A trademark is word, symbol, phrase, or design that distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others— McDonald’s golden arches and Geico’s talking gecko, for example.
Do I Need a Trademark?
When you register your business as an LLC, the business name is protected within your state. However, if you are planning on global domination you may want to consider trademarking your name. Trademarking protects your business name on federal level. It is also a good idea if you have a distinctive symbol, logo, or slogan that you want protected.
How To Get a Trademark
Filing for a trademark is a little complicated and the process is a bit slow. The good news is that you won’t need to renew it for a while.
- Make sure your trademark is not already taken. Google it first, then do a search on USPTO to check any pending applications.
- File for a trademark. Apply on the USPTO website. The cost to apply for a trademark is between $275 and $325. There are two filing application types; the cheaper one has stricter requirements.
- Keep up with the renewal. Trademarks have an unlimited lifespan (unlike copyrights and patents), but they do need to be renewed, or risk cancellation. An affidavit must be filed "between the fifth and sixth year following registration, and within the year before the end of every ten-year period after the date of registration."
Copyright is a form of intellectual property law that protects works of authorship such as books, songs, photos, and drawings. In the U.S. your work is technically copyrighted the moment you create it. However, if someone claims they are the author, you can’t bring a lawsuit unless your work is registered with the copyright office.
How To Register for Copyright
Registering for copyright is a little easier and less expensive than registering a trademark. Here are your two options and a warning.
- Filing Online—If you file on the government copyright site, the processing time is usually up to eight months. For a general copyright by a single author, the registration fee is $35. Simply fill out your information and upload the file you want to register.
- Filing Manually—Depending on what kind of work you have, there are different types of paper forms. You can find and print the applications here, but beware: filing with paper can take up to a year. For a work with one author, the copyright lasts the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. You do not need to renew it. WARNING! The “poor man’s copyright” does not hold up in court. This strategy involves mailing a copy of the work to yourself, and then keeping it in the sealed envelope with the assumption that the date stamp from the post office proves the date that you created the work. It’s a clever idea, but provides no real legal protection. Just pay the $35.
A patent is the property right of an invention. This could be a variety of things, like a new type of body soap, computer software, or a medical machine. If you are going to use your business to sell a new product, make sure it is protected with a patent.
How To Get a Patent
Patenting is generally more expensive, and is a more detailed process than copyrights and trademarks. You may want to hire a lawyer.
- Determine if your idea is patentable. In order to be approved for a patent your idea must be useful (Does it serve a purpose?), non-obvious (Is it something someone wouldn’t easily think of?), and new (Is there nothing else similar to it?). You can search all patents online to find out if your idea is already taken.
- Create a detailed description of your idea. Make sure you have an extremely detailed record of all the ins and outs of what you want to patent. You don’t necessarily have to have a prototype, but you need to make them think you do. Hire a draftsman who specializes in patents to help with a drawing if you’re not an artist. Search your local area or find one online.
- File Your Application. File for your patent through the US Patent and Trademark Office. Your application will include an oath that you are indeed the inventor. The fee to file your patent depends on the type of patent, and starts at $130.
When budgeting the total cost be sure to count in other fees, such as drafts and legal counsel.
Keep Ideas Safe
Leaving your work open for others to steal is essentially throwing away all your hard work. Determine whether you need a copyright, trademark, or patent, and get it done. Make sure that your idea is complete because once you register it, you can’t go back!
About the author: Kiera Abbamonte is the Content Marketing Specialist for Grasshopper. She likes creative content concepts, coconut coffee, and alliteration.