There’s a lot of information that a would-be business owner needs to learn if they are going to succeed. With a wife who is working to build up her supplies for an online business of her own (feel free to keep an eye on it as it develops), her loving and business-minded husband, aka me, has been busy trying to find out everything possible to help her make a website, develop a business, gain needed resources, and in general, become highly successful.
Recently an issue came to light: my wife has created an adorable little hamster icon to promote her site:
I’ll give you a few moments to finish your awwwing. Done? Alright, let’s move on. This adorable picture raised some interesting questions for the two of us, questions about how to protect her intellectual property from those people who are, shall we say, less than honorable. She is in the process of creating numerous artistic structures and we are working to create a website, either of which could be a sizable target for copyright infringers.
To manage all of this, we need to learn more about trademarks, copyrights and patents, in order to protect her (and my, for that matter) creative work, which luckily for me, makes a pretty decent PF blog entry. So let’s read on about:
Trademarks, Copyrights, and Patents
Numerous things could qualify as trademarks, such as the phrases, name, or symbol that is associated with a particular business. I could say McDonald’s, Coca-Cola or Disney, and anyone reading would instantly know what business we are discussing. Ditto with the symbols for each one; big golden arches (or the phrase ‘golden arches’ itself), a company name in scripted white letters on a red background, or a pair of mouse ears serve to distinguish each company from any competitors or any other company, and each is highly protected by each company.
How to Trademark: Any symbol or name you currently use to distinguish your business is technically already a trademark, which you can indicate without any government involvement required. My site’s name of ‘The Amateur Financier’ is a trademark, one I could clarify further by adding a ‘™’ following the name (The Amateur Financier™) or to my blog icon. So long as you use it to distinguish yourself from others, in this case other personal finance blogs, it qualifies as a trademark.
That said, if you want to clarify the matter further (and give yourself firmer legal ground), you can formally register your trademark with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), or its foreign equivalent. This will also have the advantage of putting your trademark into the USPTO database, decreasing the chance that anyone can claim to ‘accidently’ use your trademark for their own business. You’ll also be able to use the “®” symbol and refer to a ‘registered trademark’. Bear in mind, though, that registration is a long (and somewhat expensive) process, so if you are not particularly concerned about your trademarks being infringed, you can rely on unregistered trademarks to conduct your business. (You also will find if you can trademark your expression or symbol, as Donald Trump tried to do, and failed.)
Cost and Duration: $275-$375 depending on type of entity filing the trademark, but the trademark will continue, potentially forever, as long as the required forms are filed.
Copyrights are rights to copy. Alright, alright, smart-aleck responses aside, a copyright protects ‘works of authorship that have been tangibly expressed’, so writing, artwork, movies, songs, computer software, architecture, and anything of that nature. Having the copyright on a particular work of authorship means that you can determine how your works will be used. You can publish your written works, put your songs on CD, sell your computer software online, or for that matter, you can distribute it for free; your choice, and your method of profit (or lack thereof), are up to you as a result.
How to Copyright: As with trademarks, the moment you create a work of authorship that can be copyrighted, you own the copyright to that work. (As to what can be copyrighted, the US Copyright office has tried to answer most questions that could arise.) Also as with trademarks, it might be a good idea to formally register your work. If you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement, you’ll need to have your work formally copyrighted for a reasonable case; otherwise, if your work is un-copyrighted, you don’t have much of a case. You’ll also be able to use the “©” symbol and the wording ‘All Rights Reserved’ (should you choose to reserve all your copyrights) legally. You don’t have to copyright it formally, but it helps if there is risk of infringement that you hope to prevent.
Cost and Duration: The registration fee is pretty low; only $35 dollars, which is definitely surprising given the duration: they last for the author’s life plus 70 years, which is why Mickey Mouse, among other figures from the early twentieth-century, is still under copyright. (This long post-mortem extent of copyright coverage is in part because of the Disney Corporation’s actions, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.)
While trademarks cover identifying symbols and copyrights cover artworks, patents cover inventions. You can get a patent for any unique idea that would not be obvious to someone with a similar background. Here in the US, there are several types of patents, including utility patents, design patents, and plant patents (yes, you can patent plants nowadays). Each type of patent shares at least some features, the key one being the ability to exclude anyone else from making or using your idea for a limited period of time. They provide you with the ability to say that your technology is patented (or “patent-pending”). And they have value in themselves, as the exclusive ability to legally create a particularly useful or highly sort-after design or piece of technology can prove highly valuable.
How to Patent: The patent process is much longer and more complex than those for copyrights or trademarks. A complete list of everything involved would fill up an entire article, let along one or two paragraphs as part of a subsection. (Take a look at the flow chart provided for filing a utility patent; there are 12 steps to consider and resolve before the patent is actually issued.)
All of this assumes that an invention is even patentable. There are numerous conditions that need to be met, but a major one to consider before seeking a patent is ‘novelty and non-obviousness’. For utility patents, the invention in question question must be new (not made public in any way, anywhere in the world), original and non-obvious (that is, someone with reasonable knowledge in the field could not have come up with it), and useful (it has to do something). Design patents cover new ornamental designs, if you were to add a shark fin to a car design, for example. (Plus, that would be pretty cool.) Plant patents cover any new and distinct variety of asexually reproducing plants.
Cost and Duration: The total cost of patents, factoring in fees and legal issues, can be between $4000 and $20,000. Utility and Plant patents last for 20 years, while Design patents last for 14.