Trademarks vs. Copyrights: Which Do You Need For Your Business?

When your startup is in its very earliest stages, its most important and precious assets are likely its intellectual property. Too often, though, entrepreneurs put intellectual property protection on the backburner because they are primarily focused on keeping the lights on and the operation going. The choices you make at the outset regarding your company’s intellectual property, though, are among the most important decisions you will make. 

To help you make those smart decisions, we’ll go over two main types of intellectual property: trademarks and copyrights. Though sometimes thought of as synonymous, they are distinct, and your business may well need both. 

What is a Trademark? 

Per the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, a trademark is a “word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.” Subconsciously, you know countless trademarks that adorn the products you buy and use everyday. When you hear the word “Nike,” your brain immediately goes to the famous “swoosh” logo. As its definition lays out, though, more than just logos are available for trademark protection. A company’s motto, slogan, or name may be trademarked as well. 

The basic purpose of a trademark is to identify the source of a particular product or service. If some fly-by-night company begins making shoes that feature a checkmark logo, consumers might be confused and mistakenly believe the shoes are made by Nike. To protect its trademark, Nike could send a cease-and-desist letter to the company or sue for trademark infringement. 

What is a Copyright?

Copyrights are managed by the U.S. Copyright Office. A copyright can be obtained for an original work of authorship, such as “literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations.” Generally, copyrighted works must be in a tangible, fixed medium.

Essentially, copyrights apply to original artistic works. This can include blog posts, software source code, books, clothing designs, and much more. It does not, however, apply to short phrases; trademark protection is typically more appropriate for such material. 

Is Registration Mandatory?

You are not required by law to register trademarks or copyrights formally. In fact, the U.S. is one of the few jurisdictions that does not require trademarks to be registered to receive protection. Unregistered trademarks that have been used in commerce may receive limited protection, as do copyrights (as soon as the original artistic work is finished). 

Without formal registration, though, you are taking a huge risk. Without formal copyright registration, you cannot sue someone for infringement. Also, when you don’t register your trademarks federally, your marks only receive protection in a limited geographic area. With the vast majority of businesses embracing e-commerce, the days of marketing products solely within a small, well-defined territory are gone, making this protection of limited value. 

Before someone goes online, copies your startup’s intellectual property, and applies for formal registration, you should act swiftly to protect your most valuable assets. Integrated General Counsel can help you figure out how best to secure your intellectual property, so you can give your company a solid foundation on which to grow. Give our team a call today at 925-399-1529 to get started.