Intellectual Property Rights, Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights
You've thought of a name for your business, designed a logo for it, created a website, and maybe even invented a product or process that's integral to your business. But you can't afford to rest until all that creativity and work is protected. That's where intellectual property rights in the form of trademarks, copyrights, and patents come in. It can be complicated to know the difference between each and which one best fits your protection needs. The following is an overview:
Intellectual Property Rights
The creativity and productivity of our free market system depends on ideas, products, and processes being protected. And yet, the possibility of theft, piracy, and counterfeiting are risks that every business faces. Even if you don't export your products and services and have a U.S. patent, you can still be at risk because patents are country specific. A U.S. patent will not protect your products, services, and materials from being stolen by foreign entities.
While every sector is at risk, those most affected are consumer goods, all sectors of technology, including pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing. Moreover, small businesses can be especially vulnerable because they don't have the resources to monitor and uncover those abroad who might be stealing and counterfeiting their ideas and materials.
Because of that, the US has developed free resources and tools to help them protect themselves. Learn more at sba.gov.
A patent protects you from someone else producing what your patent covers. You would consider applying for a patent if you have an invention or a discovery for a process or method that is useful, isn't already obvious, and is novel or unique.
Your patent would grant you a 20-year monopoly use. It is specific to the country in which you have it and the strength of its protection varies from country to country.
You need to know if a patent on your item already exists. While you can conduct your own research, it's advisable to contact an attorney or a Patent and Trademark Depository Library for expert help. For questions, contact the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Inventors Assistance Center (IAC) online or by phone (800-786-9199).
Briefly defined, a trademark is a brand name: Coca-Cola, Huggies, Disney, Ferrari, etc. As a brand name, then, it must be distinctive, which also is a means of protection because its distinctiveness makes it more difficult to steal or misuse. The (TM) mark can be used after the trademark itself. On the other hand, the registration symbol "®" can only be used lawfully if it's been registered with the Patent and Trademark Office.
A trademarked name can still be stolen and used by someone else if not protected. For example, a trademark name can be used as part of a web address unless its owner takes precautions beforehand by securing it. Consulting early on with a trademark law attorney is advisable.
Like patents, trademarks are country-specific, but unlike patents they can be renewed every 10 years and won't be terminated as long as they are being used to identify goods or services.
Copyright registration protects original works of authorship both published and unpublished. This includes books, music, dramatic works, graphic, audiovisual and other art works, computer programs and website to name a few. Excluded are ideas and concepts, which would be covered under confidentiality agreements or trade secret law.
Copyrights gives the author exclusive rights over all aspects of the work but it might not offer protection in other countries as protection depends on the laws of the country. In other words, international copyright protection doesn't exist. For guidance or registration questions, contact the U.S. Copyright Office.
A trade secret would include a pattern or design, a formula or recipe, a device or method or a technique or process that provides a competitive advantage and is central to the business that it remain secret. The recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken or Coca Cola are two well-known trade secrets. Once lost or leaked, the owner might have legal recourse but the damage cannot be undone.
There is no registration procedure in existence that provides a public record of a right to claim, unlike with patents or copyrights. However, one method of protection is to have a trade secret declared to a patent lawyer, coupled with a notarized and signed disclosure. Unfortunately, it still doesn't guarantee the secret can never be stolen or leaked.
For more information, see sba.gov.
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