Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks for Your Small Business: What You Need

Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks for Your Small Business

Protecting your business needs to be a priority. You lock the doors to prevent people from stealing your office computers and products, so why wouldn’t you take equally important steps to protect what makes your business special?

Especially as your small business is doing new things and finding success, other people are going to notice. Some might just try to follow what your business has done in their own style, but others will try to straight up steal it for themselves. This can include stealing your product to sell for themselves, masquerading as your business, or using work you have created and saying it is theirs. Don’t let these people take advantage of your business by making sure you are adequately protected.

Patents: What They Are and How to Get One

A patent is a right given by the government to an inventor that gives them the sole ability to make, sell, or use the invention for a specific period of time. Filing for a patent means that other people cannot to recreate or sell that invention until the patent’s time limit is up.

Traditionally, there are three kinds of patents:

  • Utility Patents: These patents cover things like new machines, chemicals and processes
  • Design Patents: This kind of patent is all about the unique look or design of a manufactured item, such as outward ornamentation or overall design
  • Plant Patents: This is given when somebody invents and asexually reproduces a new plant, including new hybrids

In order to get a patent, you need to create something that is unique and non-obvious. A unique invention can qualify if it takes a previous invention and adds a new part or element that change or improves on its purpose. It must also not be something that is already patented or already commonly in use by others. Then, the inventor must clearly explain how the invention works, what it accomplishes, and how it was created. When the patent is accepted, it becomes public record, but also gives the inventor exclusive rights to it.

Filing for a patent is a double-edged sword. Yes, you get the rights to the invention and can prevent competitors from stealing it, but you also put your invention out to the public. If somebody takes your design and alters it enough, it will be fair for them to use it.

Do You Need A Patent?

Unless your business is doing something completely new in your industry, it’s unlikely you will need a patent. A patent won’t protect a specific kind of business model or marketing tactic, only an invention or something you produce. If you have created something unique, either to help make your product/service or sell itself, then it might be worth getting a patent for it.

It’s likely that while you wait for your patent to be approved, you will continue work on your invention. At this time, your product qualifies for a “patent pending” title attached to it. This title warns others that if they do copy your product that they might be liable for damages in the future if the patent goes through.

Copyright: What Qualifies and What Doesn’t

While patents protect the production and use of a physical product, a copyright can protect an idea, from writing to music to video. The copyright doesn’t protect the physical paper or CD, but what is contained within.

Copyright protects an idea that is recorded in some manner, published or not. Unlike patents, copyrights don’t require filling in order to be protected, it is already covered by US law. As long as you have the idea, art, or story recorded on some medium, it’s covered. While your work is already protected, you can file for a copyright with the government if you are worried somebody is going to steal your work. Doing so comes with extra advantages, such as recovering attorney fees if you have to sue somebody for stealing your work.

What isn’t covered by copyright are ideas that are not recorded in some form. If you talk to somebody else about an idea or art and then they produce it in a medium, you don’t have copyright on it.

For a business, common things you will have copyright over include:

  • Your website
  • Photos, videos and graphics you create
  • Any marketing content you produce
  • Designs on products
  • Logos

Complications of Copyright Law

Copyright law can get messy very quickly. If somebody steals your work and then tries to pass it as their own,  it’s easy to justify taking them to court, but that often isn’t the case. If a person makes a parody of your work, uses it as an example in a their own work, or creates something that is similar to your work but not exactly the same, copyright law becomes difficult to decide.

For example, the Superman comics are protected by copyright. The character, the name, the dialogue, all are protected. If a person not authorized to use Superman used any of these, they are breaking copyright. However, a person could create a comic that is about a super powered human like Superman, as long as his name or likeness isn’t utilized.

Trademarks: What Do They Protect?

Trademarks are like a stepped-up version of copyright for very specific types of things. The goal of trademarks is to prevent confusion between companies and branding.

In a basic sense, a trademark covers a company’s branding. That can include things like the business name, logos, and slogans. A part of this is to prevent confusion between brands, and it’s also to prevent companies from taking advantage of consumer by pretending to be a popular business.

For example, McDonald’s has their name and their iconic golden arches M logo. If another business were to use the golden arches M logo above their store, even if they have a different name, many people would become confused when walking in that it wasn’t McDonald’s.

Similar to copyright, as long as you are a legitimate and registered business, you don’t have to file a trademark for it to be valid. But registering a trademark with the government does come with extra benefits, like having the ™ mark next to their logos and such, and be able to quickly dispute trademark violations.

Being Diligent To Protect You Small Business Ideas

Just because you have the protections available doesn’t mean your job is done. You will need to actively hunt for people who are breaking the law in order to stop them. People violate copyright all the time, so doing things like performing Google searches for works similar to what you already have done, or searching for business impersonating yours, are necessary to protecting what is yours. Be aware that people do violate patents, copyrights, and trademarks on an ongoing basis and if you don’t catch them, they will keep doing it.

As you create your small business plan, be sure to put some thought into consulting or retaining an attorney both to help you set up appropriate protections for your business, ideas, or inventions, as well as to avoid inadvertently violating the trademarks or copyrights of existing businesses. Budget ahead of time for these types of legal expenses, and be sure to include them in any loan applications or fundraising pitches you make. If you business is more established, don’t wait to perform this legal due diligence.

For more tips and guides, visit our small business resource center.

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