For many entrepreneurs, intellectual property is at the heart of their business operations. But intellectual property law is complex, and it can be difficult to decide what protection you need as a business owner.
Three types of intellectual property protection – patents, trademarks and copyrights – are often misunderstood when it comes to how they cover your business assets.
Here’s a simplified look at the differences between each of these protection types, including where they overlap and why your business might need all three.
What Do Patents Protect?
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) defines a patent as a right given to an inventor in order to “exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” an invention.
Patents protect any new “process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter,” which is the functional, physical expression of an idea. With that in mind, it’s important to note that you can’t patent an intangible idea itself.
If you started your business to sell a new and original invention, a patent would protect the exclusivity of your product. This would give you the right to prevent others, including competitors, from commercially using or selling your product.
A patent would not protect your business name, logo, slogan or any creative works, such as a promotional video, that your business uses, even if it’s based on your invention.
What Do Trademarks Rights Protect?
The USTPO defines a trademark as any “word, phrase, symbol and/or design” that indicates the source of goods. Similarly, service marks are used to determine the source of the service provider, though both are often used under the broad term of “trademarks.”
Trademarks are used for names, logos, slogans, short phrases and other designs used to distinguish your goods or products from those of other businesses. With trademark protection, you can prevent others from using marks that are the same or too similar.
Although trademark rights can prevent others from using your marks, they don’t offer protection to actual goods or services. If you operate a computer repair business, for example, your trademark rights can prevent others from using your business name and logo, but they can’t prevent others from offering the exact same services.
What Do Copyrights Protect?
According to the USPTO, copyrights protect creative “works of authorship, such as writings, music, and works of art that have been tangibly expressed.”
Copyrights are given to the author of the creative works, and the author has exclusive rights to prepare, produce, distribute and display the work. Copyright protection prevents others from reproducing and selling the creative work without the author’s permission.
Though they are most often used by creative professionals, copyrights are also common in business. They can protect creative works like a promotional video, the text of an advertisement or an original song used in radio commercials.
Where Do They Overlap?
There are many scenarios in which business owners may need more than one type of intellectual property protection.
In the example of the computer repair business, trademark rights would protect your business name, logo and slogans used to identify the business. If you created a short instructional video to send to potential clients, it would be protected under copyright law as an original creative work.
If after several years in business you invented a new machine to help repair computers – something that met all the definitions of a new and useful invention – you could apply for a patent to ensure the exclusive rights to the product.
Protecting Your Intellectual Property
Patents, trademarks and copyrights all cover similar ground, but the differences typically lie in the expression or medium of the intellectual property.
Managing your intellectual property in the real world is far more complex than this simplified look at the differences in protection types reveals. Your intellectual property management strategy should be based on the needs and complexity of your business, and the best way to protect your assets is with diligence and a forward-thinking approach that takes into consideration all aspects of your business.
There are several Greater Phoenix SCORE mentors who can answer questions regarding intellectual property (IP) law. Click here to schedule a free mentoring session today!
Steven Laureanti is a shareholder at JacksonWhite Attorneys at Law and practices in the areas of patent law, international intellectual property, technology licensing, trade dress, trade secrets, patent litigation consultation, trademarks, and copyrights. He is a Registered Patent Attorney with considerable experience in patent preparation and prosecution, patent appeals, interferences and reexaminations. Steven’s patent practice focuses on working with companies to develop and maintain offensive and defensive intellectual property portfolios that closely aligns with technologies that are strategic to the company’s corporate objectives.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you’re in need of legal advice, please contact an attorney in your area.