If you own a business, you should take steps to protect your intellectual property – it may be the
most important business asset that you'll ever own.
Intellectual Property Explained
Intellectual property (often shortened to IP) is a legal term that encompasses different forms of
valuable business assets. The 3 main areas of IP are patents, copyrights, and trademarks.
A lot of folks get confused when talking about copyrights, trademarks, and patents. They will
mistakenly refer to a “copyright” when they’re really talking about a “trademark.” Or, they may
think that all IP is a patent. And these various IP forms do have similarities, but they are actually
very different and serve unique legal and business purposes.
This is explained more completely below, but in general:
trademarks -- protect a brand name or logo found in the creative work
copyrights -- protect the form of the expression; e.g., the writing itself
patents -- protect inventions
A trademark is anything that you use to identify and distinguish your goods and services from the
goods and services of others. For example, look at our office sign. Or, look at this webpage. Or,
look at our stationary. In all places (and even more!) you’ll see the stylistic (and stylish!) George
George Law, with the symbol, is our brand name. In the business world, a trademark is
commonly referred to as a brand name or just a brand. Trademarks (which also cover service
marks) include words, names, symbols, logos and taglines/slogans such as “George Law,” “Coca-
Cola,” Nike’s famous “swoosh” logo, and even the Nike slogan "Just Do It." You will usually see
trademarks on a product or its packaging, while service marks usually appear in advertising for
the services or on company websites.
Trademarks are essential to the success of businesses with multiple locations, such as franchises
like McDonald's and Subway, as well as more local non-franchised businesses with several
locations. A trademark is one of the most important business assets that you and your business
will ever own – your trademark identifies and distinguishes your company and its
products/services in the marketplace from its competitors. When a consumer repeatedly sees
your trademark, they gain confidence in your brand and your business. Therefore, it is important
for you to make sure that you protect and enforce your valuable trademarks.
When you own a trademark, you can prevent others, including competitors, from using your
trademark or one that is confusingly similar. One of the best (and easiest) ways to protect a
trademark is to register it with the state or federal government. Before you actually adopt and
begin using a new trademark for your business, you must conduct a search with the trademark
office to ensure that nobody has already registered a trademark or used it in commerce (known as
a “common law” trademark) that is confusingly similar to what you intend to be your trademark;
if so, they can stop you from using the trademark, which could cost you valuable time and
significant expense. But once you’ve registered your trademark, you can prevent others from
A copyright protects a creator of “original works of authorship,” including musical, artistic,
literary and dramatic. Copyright law protects copyright owners by giving them the exclusive
right to reproduce and use the copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works, to perform the
copyrighted work publicly, to distribute copies of the copyrighted work, and to display the
copyrighted work publicly for a very long time (95 years after you publish the work).
A copyright protects the “form of expression” (e.g., the writing itself) rather than the “subject
matter of the writing” (such as an invention, which a patent protects) or the brand name or logo
contained in the creative work (which trademark law protects). Copyrights are registered with the
Copyright Office of the Library of Congress (there is no similar state entity as there is with
Copyrights can prevent others from using your company’s original creative works without your
permission. For example, are concerned that anybody may use your:
advertising and promotional materials
You may have protectable legal rights in each listed item. As a copyright owner, you can
regulate how all of these things are distributed, reproduced, and presented publicly. Most
importantly, you can prevent others (i.e., competitors) from using your copyrighted works or
works that are substantially similar to yours.
You don’t have to register your copyright to own the rights to it; just creating the original work
can begin your ownership. But if you do register your work, you obtain better protection.
The U.S. Government issues 3 primary types of patents, but 2 are most frequently used -- utility
patents and design patents.
Utility Patents – for the most common types of inventions; i.e., those that produce a
“function” or “result”, (such as certain machinery and equipment).
Design Patents -- for purely artistic or ornamental designs for manufactured items that
have no effect on the manufactured item’s function (such as a watch’s ornamental face-
plate or an office chair’s unique design feature).
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issues patents, and patents it issues are effective only
within the United States; international patent protection is available, but it’s more expensive and
difficult to obtain. Individual states do not offer patent protection.
If you obtain a U.S. patent, you have the exclusive right to exclude others from using, making,
selling, offering to sell, or importing the product into the U.S. for a specific number of years
(usually 20 years from when you filed to obtain the patent).
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