If you currently own a business, or have ever thought about going down that road, intellectual property is an important issue to consider. Even for those who plan to stick with freelancing rather than build your business into something larger, you need to be aware of the legal implications of your work. Depending on the type of business you go into, you may need trademarks, copyrights, patents, or all of the above.
For those of you in the communications field especially, trademarks and copyrights are very important to protect your business. Here are a few basic tips for trademarks, followed by a brief description of copyrights and patents.
What is a trademark?
A trademark is a group of words and/or symbols that identify your business. Usually this includes the company name, slogan, logo, and product names. Once registered with the US Patent & Trademark Office, your trademark is federally protected and you can take enforcement action against anyone who tries to use the same words and/or symbols. You can also apply to register the trademark internationally and enforce it in each country where it is registered. Trademarks can be registered nationwide through the US Patent and Trademark Office and statewide through the Texas Secretary of State.
Is a d/b/a the same thing as a trademark?
No! A “D/b/a” filing (doing business as) just lets the local government know that you are doing business under that name. It does not offer any protection of that name, and anyone who owns a registered trademark to that same name would win an infringement dispute.
Should I apply for a trademark?
If you are already using or planning to use a particular name and/or design in your business, then yes.
You want to be certain that no one else can steal your name or design, and likewise, you don’t want to get in trouble by using the same name or design as someone else. Be sure to do an online search via the US Patent and Trademark Office and Secretary of State websites for conflicting trademark registrations before choosing a business name and purchasing marketing materials.
You will also want to search the local Secretary of State’s website for conflicting business names. However, a registered trademark will trump someone who has merely filed entity formation papers such as an LLC or Corporation with the state and has not registered that name for a federal trademark.
When should I apply for a trademark?
Apply for a trademark as soon as you decide which words to use (company or product name, slogan, etc.) and/or have a final logo design. Trademarks are approved on a first-to-file basis, depending on the date of your application, so apply as soon as possible.
Should I reserve the company name by itself, the logo, or both?
Both! You can apply to reserve only words with no design element, and you can also apply to reserve a design (your logo) along with the company name or other applicable wording. By applying to reserve only the company name without the logo, you will be able to enforce the registered trademark against anyone who simply uses that name. While registering the design is definitely recommended, it may not be as crucial since the registration will protect that specific logo, and the odds that someone would try to use that exact design are less likely than the attempted use of your company name. If finances are limited and you need to choose, then apply to reserve the name first.
A copyright provides protection of original works of authorship such as a book, song, movie, blog entry, or website. Like trademarks, copyrights are approved on a first-to-file basis, and are done through the US Copyright Office. Your copyright protects the content of the work, not the title. However, you can apply to register the title as a trademark as well.
Patents protect original ideas for inventions that include processes, designs, and other related elements. For example, if you create a new method to extract salt from ocean water, then a patent would prevent anyone else from stealing that particular method.
If you want to apply for a patent, then seek out a patent attorney. This is a very specialized field and tedious process, so you will want to make sure that the application is done properly from the beginning and you can enjoy the rights that it grants once approved.
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