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As a business owner, it’s important to protect your intellectual property from being stolen or repurposed by someone else. Intellectual property can range from a logo to written material to a software program – essentially any tangible or intangible works your business produces, you have a right to keep safe.1

Copyrights, trademarks, and patents all protect intellectual property and are often used interchangeably – but the three are actually quite different. It’s helpful to understand the differences among the three before choosing which protection your work may be qualified for so that your business can continue to guard your creative endeavors from external parties.

What is a trademark?

A trademark can be a brand’s phrase, symbol, logo, or anything else that clearly identifies and distinguishes one business or product from another. For example, McDonald’s golden arches or Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ logo would be considered trademarks because they are so closely entwined with the brands they represent. If you were to use either of these examples in your own company’s design or logo, you would likely be committing trademark infringement.

Trademarks ultimately exist to prevent confusion between two brands, since a simple design or logo can be so closely associated with a specific company or product. For instance, if a business owner were to start a technology company, put an apple logo on their devices and sell them at a much lower price than the real Apple does, customers could potentially assume they are the same company, and Apple could file a lawsuit.

Trademarks have no expiration date as long as the mark is actively used by the brand or company.

What is a patent?

A patent is issued to inventors by the Patent and Trademark Office granting them the right to a new invention. Patents can be granted to come up with new inventions like software programs, pharmaceutical drugs, or machinery. In exchange for publicly disclosing the potential new invention, companies and inventors have the ability to work on creating products and solutions without interference from competitors.

There are three types of patents your business can choose to prohibit individuals or companies from creating, using, or selling your product:

  • Utility patents: Covers inventors creating machinery, appliances, software, products, or business processes
  • Plant patents: Covers anyone inventing a new type of plant with the ability to reproduce
  • Design patents: Covers inventors working on a design for a manufactured product

Typically, a patent will last for 20 years, but that’s not always the case. A design patent for example is generally only valid for 14 years. All patents, regardless of type, require some level of fees and/or annuities to maintain the enforceability of the patent.2

What is a copyright?

Copyrights protect authors and artists from anyone else using, reproducing, distributing, or performing their original work without permission. Some examples of works that can be copyrighted include but are not limited to photos, books, articles, movies, scripts, music, architecture, software code, drawings, sculptures, or paintings. Whatever the medium, the work must exist as an entity – you can’t obtain a copyright for only an idea.

While you’re not required by law to register your copyrighted material, doing so with the U.S. Copyright Office works in your favor — in the event someone uses your work without your consent you may be allowed to sue for damages. Another important thing to remember is that your work does not necessarily have to be published in order for you to copyright it. However, if the copyright is not registered, you cannot bring a claim into court and therefore cannot really prevent another from using it.

A copyright registration grants the owner rights to control reproduction, distribution, and display of said registered copyrighted works. It can also help regulate who receives royalties from any financial gains the work makes over time, even after the original artist has passed away. For works created by an individual, the copyright lasts the author’s life plus 70 years; for works created by a corporation, a copyright lasts 95 years.3 To learn more about registration, visit the U.S. Copyright Office website.

How to find help

Regardless of the type of intellectual property protection you think you may need, it is best to speak to a reputable attorney on the matter when attempting to obtain any sort of formal legal protections. There are also plenty of organizations, easily found online that can and will provide free legal advice.

You can also visit the Nationwide Business Solutions Center for more resources on how to find what is right for your small business.

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