Your business assets might include equipment, real estate, or cash reserves tucked away in a bank account but you may also own something else: intellectual property.
Intellectual property refers to things like inventions or designs for an invention, manuscripts, books, creative licenses, or logos. Patents, copyrights, and trademarks represent the three types of intellectual property businesses can own. This quick guide explains the ins and outs of how they compare.
What’s a Patent?
A patent is a special license issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that gives you the exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention for a set period of time.
Patents aren’t all the same; LegalZoom spells out three different kinds of patents business can apply for:
- Utility: These patents are good for 20 years and are used to protect machines, manufactured items, processes, methods, and compositions of matter.
- Provisional: This is a short-term patent with a 12-month term that covers the same things as utility patents and allows you to fast track market testing of your product or idea.
- Design: Design patents have a 14-year term and cover the artistic or ornamental design elements of an item you manufacture for commercial use.
Remember, if your patent expires, that opens up the field for anyone else to copy and sell your invention. You’ll need to pay regular maintenance fees to keep your patent active and once it expires, it can only be renewed by an act of Congress.
Copyrights Help Creatives
If your business involves creating original works, such as books, articles, songs, photographs, or artwork, a copyright legally identifies them as belonging to you.
But what exactly does a copyright protect against? Essentially, they’re a legal way to keep someone else from copying work you’ve created.
They don’t protect your ideas, however. If you develop an app based based on an original concept, for example, and someone else has the same idea there’s nothing to stop them from producing their own iteration of it.
Copyrights can be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Once you register a copyright, it’s good for the rest of your life, plus an additional 70 years.
Trademarks Protect Brand Identity
What do Band-Aid, Google, and La-Z-Boy have in common? At first glance, it may seem like nothing but the shared thread is that they’re all trademarked brands.
A trademark is a word, phrase, design, or symbol that identifies and distinguishes your business’s products and/or services from another. Unlike patents, trademarks don’t expire and they don’t have to be registered.
But, registering a trademark with the USPTO gives you some advantages since it’s a public statement of your ownership claim to a particular mark. Once your trademark is registered, no one else can use it and if they do, you could sue them for trademark infringement.
Before registering a trademark, it’s a good idea to make sure no one else has laid claim to it. You can search for trademarks already in use here.
Not sure whether you need a patent, copyright, or trademark? Use LegalZoom’s handy index to help you decide.