Copyrights, Patents, and Trademarks
The lines separating copyrights, patents, and trademarks can be fine indeed on the surface, but these legal protections are different and it's important for entrepreneurs to understand how and why. You have to be able to protect your rights to your materials, inventions, products, ideas, and services.
If you're not sure what type of protection you need given the nature of your business, it's always a good idea to consult with an attorney. You might want to do so even if you think you're sure, just to be positive that your understanding is correct.
That said, you basically have three choices when it comes to protecting yourself against someone stealing your inventions or intellectual property. Despite their similarities, these protections aren't interchangeable. Each typically covers a different kind of property and businesses often use a combination of copyrights, patents, and trademarks to ensure that their rights are fully protected.
Copyright protects certain “forms of expression.” This includes works of art as well as written materials. It does not include an entire broad subject or topic, but rather only what you might express about that subject or topic.
You can't copyright World War II, but you can copyright a book you wrote about it. Copyright is granted to the individual who creates a form of expression. It most often relates to intellectual property rather than a tangible creation.
You can formally register a copyright, but you might also have automatic protection of your rights even without registering something you created.
A patent protects your rights to an invention—typically something tangible, but not always. Patenting is a legal process that's accomplished by submitting a formal patent application to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Fees vary depending upon exactly what you're trying to patent.
A patent has to come from a governmental entity, and it basically prevents others from creating the same invention, then manufacturing and selling it under their own names and terms.
Trademarks are used to identify logos, designs, jingles, slogans, or even a single word or a series of words that identify and represent your company, product, or service. Think McDonald's golden arches or GEICO's chatty and personable gecko. Can you see either one of these things and not immediately think of the brand they represent?
Trademarks are unique and specific things that represent and relate to you or your company, and they're powerful when they take hold. If your storefront or business card includes an image of a woman twirling on one high heel and this is your image, you'll want to protect it so no one else can spin it off into their own design. A trademark must be registered with the Patent and Trademark Office in the United States, and it can cost several hundred dollars.