Studying Business: Trademark and Intellectual Property

Anyone operating a business needs to have at least some understanding of trademark and copyright law to protect their intellectual property. These laws are in place to protect the interests and rights of people who invent or create things, processes, or ideas. Even the logo or slogan of a company needs protection as a trademark that identifies the company in the minds of consumers. Some laws offer protection from the second a work is created, without the owner needing to do anything legal to protect it.

Trademarks

A trademark is a unique identifier connected with a company. A trademark might be a specific word, phrase, symbol, sound, scent, combination of colors, group of numbers or letters, or any combination thereof. A trademark is a representation of a company, a product, or a service. Over time, consumers often begin to identify a company or its products when they see the trademark. Trademark laws protect the rights of trademark owners. To protect a trademark, an owner may register the trademark federally. However, a trademark need not be registered for an owner to have protection from others using the trademark or using something similar. To register a trademark, a person must file an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Before completing a registration form, search the USPTO database to make sure that there are not similar or identical trademarks already in use.

Copyright

Federal law protects original works that are either published or unpublished. This protection extends to artistic works such as literary novels, poetry, songs, movies, architecture, and computer software. Copyright does not protect intangible facts or ideas; however, it may offer protection for the expression of ideas. A work is protected by copyright immediately at the time someone creates it. Registration for a copyright is not required for protection. However, if someone wants to be able to engage in litigation for copyright infringement, registration is required.

Trade Secrets

A business may have confidential information that gives it a competitive edge over other companies. This “trade secret” could involve special manufacturing or production processes that a company needs to protect. Examples of trade secrets could include a special sales protocol or a secret recipe for a food product. Registration is not necessary to protect a trade secret, and a business can protect a trade secret for any period of time. To qualify as a trade secret, the information must be confidential, it must have commercial value, and the business owner must take reasonable steps to keep the information secret.

Patents

A patent is a legal tool that protects an object, technique, or process that is unique. A utility patent applies to inventions or discoveries of a new process or machine. A design patent applies to a new or original design for the manufacture of an item. A plant patent applies to the discovery or invention of a new plant variety through asexual reproduction. With acquisition of a patent, the owner has sole rights as the inventor. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issues patents. A patent lasts for 20 years from the application filing date, and the rights are valid only in the United States. A patent does not grant rights to use or make the item. Instead, patents prevent others from doing so. Inventors can search the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database to determine whether something has already been patented. An item or process must be useful and original to become patented.

Intellectual Property Explained

“Intellectual property” is a broad term that encompasses unique work created by anyone. Intellectual property can be protected by trademark, copyright, and patent laws. Intellectual property includes two separate categories: industrial property, such as inventions and trademarks, and literary and artistic works that would be protected by copyright. The premise of intellectual property rights involves ensuring that inventors or owners of creations benefit from their unique work.