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What is “Intellectual Property?” 

Intellectual property (or “IP”) refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions, names, symbols, or artistic works.  Claiming IP protection is the best way to protect your original innovations and business processes. Most business owners are concerned with their tangible property, but intangible assets such as designs and prototypes should be a top priority.  In fact, a growing business may suffer a greater economic loss if someone steals IP even more than the theft of any office property. You may be familiar with the words “trademark,” copyright,” and “patent,” but the purpose of each one is different and complex.  Understanding how IP works will help you determine the best route for you to take to protect your business’s intellectual property.   

What Is a Trademark and What Does It Protect?

The ultimate goal of trademark law is to protect consumers from brand confusion by identifying the source of goods and services. Trademark protection is most commonly used to protect logos, names, and symbols used by businesses.  Obtaining a trademark (sometimes referred to as a service mark) requires you to use the mark for commercial purposes and the mark must be distinct from other registered trademarks.  Although not required, registering for trademark protection with the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provides evidence and public notice of trademark ownership.  A registered trademark may be denoted with a ™ symbol after the mark. However, owners can establish common law rights with sufficient evidence and consistent use in commerce alone.    

Undergoing the application and registration process will make it easier for you to assert claims against anyone who uses your mark without permission.  If all required compliance paperwork is maintained, a registered trademark can last for 10 years and more upon renewal.  

Learn more about trademarks.
What is a common law trademark?
How long does a trademark last?
Should I trademark my business name?
How to do a trademark search.

What Is a Copyright and What Does It Protect?

Copyright law is designed to protect original works of authorship, such as books, articles, photographs, film, and much more.  A copyright holder is granted several exclusive rights, such as the right to reproduce, sell distribute, and transfer the work. The key requirement to claim a copyright is originality and the work must also be a fixed, tangible form of some sort.  The copyrighted work can take the form of a book, chart, program, sculpture, or a digital medium. Copyright protection lasts for the lifetime of the creator and the following 70 years after their death.  

Although copyrights are automatically born when you create a work, you must register with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to have legal remedies available to fight infringement.   

Learn more about copyrights.

What Is a Patent and What Does It Protect?

Patents are granted through filing a patent application with the USPTO in order to protect new and useful inventions including machines, processes, compositions, and designs.  Most people mistakenly believe that patents protect ideas, however, patents are only granted for inventions, not mere concepts.  To be considered “patentable” an invention must be useable in the industry it is designed for.  While copyrights are granted for artistic expressions, patents are used to protect scientific or industrial creations and innovations.  

There are three types of patents:

  • Utility patents protect new and useful processes, machines, manufactures, compositions of matter, or improvements of existing inventions. 
  • Design patents protect investor’s intellectual property rights for inventions of new, original, and ornamental designs for an article of manufacture. 
  • Plant patents protect novel, nonobvious, asexually reproduced plants.

Holding a patent provides many opportunities for the owner to license the patent for use by another but it also grants the exclusive right to make, use, or sell the invention.  

Unlike copyright protection, a patent does not exist without first applying to the USPTO for registration.  The registration process is complex and long, typically taking over a year from start to finish.  

Patents can last for up to 20 years if properly maintained by staying current with maintenance fees after the initial registration.  After 20 years, a patent cannot be renewed.  

Learn more about patents.

While there may appear to be some overlap, each type of intellectual property law is unique and has its own requirements.  If your business can benefit from trademark registration or if your enterprise relies heavily on any innovative creation, be sure to take the time to evaluate a plan to register your IP and guard against potential infringement.