Trademark or Copyright: Which One Will Best Protect Your Business?
As a small business owner, you’ve worked hard to build a recognizable brand based on your unique product or your special service. Whether you sell a tangible product (kid-sized furniture or a healthful granola, perhaps) or offer a valuable service like being a motivational speaker or creating and sending custom greeting cards, it might be wise to protect your idea from competitors or copycats.
There are three options for protecting your intellectual property: patents, copyrights and trademarks. The latter two are often confused, so this post will help you understand which one best applies to your business.
Let’s talk copyrights
A copyright protects original literary and artistic work such as books, reports, videos and audio recordings, as well as things like poems, sculpture or a piece of music. Technically speaking, copyright applies to works or creations that are “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”
A copyright gives you the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform or display your intellectual property. You also get to decide if and how you want to use your copyrighted material or creation for commercial use. Once you own the copyright to a piece of work, you can sell or license those rights to a third party if you choose.
Worth noting: Your original work is automatically copyrighted at the time of creation. However, if you think another person or business is inappropriately using your work and you’re considering using, you’ll need a registered copyright to make your case.
Five surprising copyrights you might already own (but don’t know it)
The home video you took last year of your cat eating the Thanksgiving turkey
The original dance you choreographed for your kid’s variety show performance
The map you drew on a napkin to show your out-of-town guest how to get to the art gallery
The creepy sound-effects recording you created and played last Halloween
That jingle you made up to keep the carpool kids entertained – if you wrote it down, you own it!
Let’s talk trademarks
Trademarks protect the words, phrases, slogans, symbols, logos or other “mark” you use to identify your goods or services and differentiate your brand from the competition. Trademarks exist to protect your efforts to create a unique brand, and they give you the right to sue someone who infringes on your intellectual property.
Trademarks also help minimize consumer confusion between brands. If, for example, you run Betty’s Bake Shop and a new business opens down the road called Betty’s Bake Shoppe, your trademarked Shop might be able to sue Betty’s Shoppe.
How to register a trademark
Trademarks can be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. (They can be established through actual use in the marketplace, too.) Registering a trademark first requires doing a trademark search to ensure it's not already in use. You might consider hiring an attorney to help you with this process, especially if you’re not sure your company name or logo (or related “mark” is truly one of a kind).
Eight trademarks you already know and (maybe) love:
Coco Chanel (a trademarked name)
Apple (a trademarked word. The iconic bitten apple image is trademarked, too)
McDonald’s golden arch (a trademarked symbol)
Puma’s leaping black puma (a trademarked picture or drawing)
Geico’s talking gecko (a trademarked figure or mascot)
Nike’s Just Do It (a trademarked slogan)
Coca Cola’s glass bottle (a trademarked product shape)
NBC’s three-tone chime (a trademarked sound)
Once you’re clear on whether a copyright or a trademark will best protect your business, the next step is deciding if registering is worth your time and money. The following links will help you determine what’s right for you.