Patent, Copyright and Trademark Basics


You have a brilliant idea for a business. But have you protected it from the competition? Copyrights and patents can help you fend off copycat competitors and protect your business from copyright trolls. But where do you begin? Is your product or service eligible for a patent or copyright? Here’s the low-down on copyrights and patents, straight from the U.S. Copyright Office:

  • Patents protect inventions or discoveries
  • Copyright protects original works of authorship
  • Trademarks protect words, phrases, symbols or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party that distinguishes them from others


Patents are intellectual property rights granted to inventors that can keep others from making, using or selling those inventions in the U.S. They last for a limited time and are issued only when the inventor agrees to publicly disclose the details of his/her invention. There are three main types of patents:

  • Utility patents – if you invent or discover any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, composition of matter – or any new and useful improvement of these – you may be eligible for a utility patent.
  • Design patents  – if you invent a new, original and ornamental design for an article of manufacture
  • Plant patents ­– if you invent or discover a distinct and new variety of plant


In dry U.S. Copyright Office language, copyrights protect original works of publish or unpublished authorship including literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software and architecture.

Thankfully, copyrights apply the moment your work is created. But you’ll need to register your copyright in case you ever get embroiled in a lawsuit for copyright infringement.


Finally, we come to trademarks. A trademark (TM) is a word, phrase, symbol or design that identifies your company or distinguishes your products from the competition. There are also service marks (SM), which denote the source of a service rather than a product.

Technically you don’t have to register your mark to lay claim to it. Just use TM and SM to let the competition know it’s yours. You can, however, register with the USPTO if you think you may run into any trouble.

Here’s some additional information about protecting your trademark.

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