Whenever you start a business, it needs to have something about it that is special, some unique quality. Sometimes, that quality is just bringing an existing product or service into a new market. But other times, the unique quality of your business is a new product or service that you’ve invented. When you’ve taken the time and effort to develop a unique product or service, it’s important to protect your intellectual property so that other companies are not able to make money off of your ideas. There are a variety of forms of protection for intellectual property, though, and it’s important that you know the differences between them and what you need to do to apply for these protections for your business.
The first form of protection for intellectual property is the copyright. Copyrights protect written works—full “original works of authorship,” according to the United States Copyright Office, not just a few words or phrases. It also protects other artistic works, such as music, dramas, dances, or even architectural works. They are the simplest form of protection to get, because the writer automatically protects the work simply by including the copyright date on the work. To fully protect your work, though, you’ll need to register the copyright with the federal government. With this registration, you’ll be able to legally collect damages if anyone infringes on your copyright. You can register your copyright online at www.copyright.gov. The copyright will last for the entire lifetime of the work’s creator plus 70 years.
To protect a product or service, you will need a patent. The patent lasts for 20 years, during which time you have exclusive rights to your product or service, and all the revenue it generates. Patents must be filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and the patent process can be very lengthy and expensive. There is a detailed application process that requires you to prove that you have created something useful and non-obvious, and not closely related to another product patented by someone else. Because of the demands of this process, you can also get a provisional patent application that provides limited protection for 12 months while you determine whether it’s a good financial decision to apply for the full patent protection. The provisional application is much more affordable for small businesses (just $150), and requires no official inquiry into your creation. You can see a good visualization of the patent process here: http://www.uspto.gov/patents/process/index.jsp
Trademarks and Servicemarks
Trademarks and servicemarks are related forms of protection. They identify a product or service as originating from your company, so that no other company can pass off their own product under your name. You’ll use a trademark to protect a name, slogan, symbol, logo, design, color, sound, or some combination of these items associated with a product. In the United States, a servicemark is used to protect these same items, but when associated with a service instead of a business or product. These marks will last indefinitely, as long as you still use the registered products or services and make periodic required filings with the government.
To receive full protection for your intellectual property, no matter of what kind, you must maintain the confidentiality of your creation until you finalize the registration process. It’s a good idea to use non-disclosure or confidentiality agreements with anyone who encounters your intellectual property or information about it during these beginning stages, and you’ll probably want to get an attorney to ensure that you get full protection of your intellectual property.