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Protect your Invention or Product; Patents, Trademarks, and Copyright

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Protect your Invention or Product; Patents, Trademarks, and Copyright

Published: April 30, 2009

Intellectual property protection is a critical part of a small business owner’s current and future growth strategy.

According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s stopfakes.gov Web site, companies that protect their intellectual property drive more economic growth in the U.S. than any other single sector.

The unfortunate flip side of this fact is that small businesses are more vulnerable than any other sector to piracy, counterfeiting, and the theft of their intellectual property. Small business owners oftentimes simply don’t have access to the intellectual property protection know-how that larger corporations do.

If you are self-employed or are a small business owner, and need a command of the process of intellectual property protection, below is a summary of the basics as well as links to other resources that can help set you on your way.

Understanding the Difference between Patenting and Other Forms of Intellectual Property

There are essentially three forms of intellectual property: patents, trademarks, and copyrights. Each has a distinct definition and relevance to the small business owner looking to protect inventions, brand, or intellectual works:

  • Patents - A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor. Patents are granted for new, useful and non-obvious inventions for a period of 20 years from the filing date of a patent application, and provide the right to exclude others from exploiting the invention during that period.
  • Trademarks - A trademark is different to a patent since it only protects words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish goods and services. Trademarks, unlike patents, can be renewed forever as long as they are being used in commerce.
  • Copyright - The Library of Congress registers copyrights, which last for the life of the author plus 70 years. Books, movies and musical recordings are all examples of copyrighted works.

How to Apply for a Patent

There are three types of patents that you can apply for based on the nature of your invention - utility patents, design patents, or plant (of the green variety) patents. A useful starting point is to find out what can and cannot be patented. The U.S Patent Office can help with this here.

To get a patent you will need to process an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This is a complex process, and almost all experts recommend that patent-seekers retain the services of a registered patent attorney or patent agent to prepare and prosecute their applications.

A great single resource for information on applying for a patent is Business.gov’s Small Business Guide to Intellectual Property. It includes information on how to get a patent, a detailed explanation of types of patents, FAQs, and information on the patent application process.

How to Register Your Trademark

If you want to stake a claim on your trademark through the use of the 'TM' (trademark),'SM' (servicemark) or the '?' federal registration symbol, you’ll need to follow these steps:

  1. Determine whether your product is eligible for a trademark
  2. Conduct a trademark search
  3. Register for the trademark online (for a fee) via the Trademark Electronic Application System.

For a step-by-step guide to filing a trademark application, FAQs and more, refer to Business.gov’s Small Business Guide to Intellectual Property.

Patents, Trademarks and Overseas Markets

Only 15 percent of small businesses that do business overseas realize that a U.S. patent only provides protection in the U.S. Below are the basics about intellectual property protection in overseas markets:

  • Overseas Patents - Almost every country has its own patent law and you’ll need to follow the patent application process within the country in which you wish to protect your invention. Find out more about filing for an overseas patent here .
  • International Trademarks - You can file for trademark registration, via a single application, in certain countries (defined by the Madrid Protocol) only if you are already a qualified owner of a trademark application pending before the U.S. Patent Office. If you want to protect your trademark overseas you’ll need to file for international trademark protection. Get more information here from Entrepreneur.com

Copyright Law

If you want to protect 'original works of authorship' such as music, books, screenplays, etc. copyright law can protect published and unpublished works against illegal reproduction, distribution, performance, etc. Get more information on the copyright process here.

Other Resources

  • 'Inventor’s Resources' - Information on patents, trademarks, scams, and the complaints process from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
  • U.S. Patent Office - More than just insight into intellectual property law, this site provides guides, tools, FAQs, and more.
  • StopFakes.gov/SmallBusiness - Intellectual property information specifically for small businesses.

About the Author:


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