Protecting your business’s intellectual property and designs is crucial if you want to succeed in the crowded business environment. While copyright protections exist for written works and other artistic properties, there are two other types of federal protection you can apply for: patent protection and trademark infringement.
But because of what they do, many people confuse patents vs. trademarks or don’t know the differences that distinguish both types of copyright law. In this guide, we’ll break down both the similarities and differences of patents and trademarks so you know which you should apply for when you create a new product or finalize the logo for your company.
What Is a Patent?
At its core and in the simplest terms possible, a patent is just a property right that prevents others from making and selling the same property. A patent can only be granted (officially at least) by the US Patent and Trademark Office or USPTO. This is the official organization that maintains a record of all active patents and which approves new patents to avoid contradictions or conflicts between one or more patent labels.
As a “property right,” a patent grants the owner exclusive rights to create, use, or profit from particular pieces of property. In most cases, this applies to things like inventions, utilities, intellectual properties, or other business assets.
In the US, there are three different types of patents:
- Design patents are granted for “new and original” designs for manufactured products. However, design patents only protect the appearance of an object or invention rather than its functionality.
- Utility patents are the opposite. They are granted for useful, new, and non-obvious inventions for machines, manufacturers, processes, matter composition, and so on. They protect the function of an invention rather than its appearance.
- Plant patents are unique. They are patents for discovering or inventing an asexually reproducible plant proven to be distinct from existing species.
What Does a Patent Protect?
Patents protect any type of technical invention and discovery (in the case of plant patents). Because of this protection, others are not legally able to make or sell an invention or profit from the invention depending on the type of patent used.
For example, say that you create a new type of engine to be used in cars. You can apply for a functional or utility patent, which prevents other people from creating and profiting from the same engine type.
Benefits of Patents
There are lots of benefits to patents for inventors or companies that create unique products that they hope to profit from. Primarily, patents are used to safeguard inventions and processes from being used by other parties.
In the above example, creating a new type of engine for cars could significantly profit your business. However, if a larger engine manufacturer, like Ford, were to get the schematics for the engine and start to produce the same invention, Ford would likely profit at a much greater level because of its increased manufacturing capabilities.
Even worse, Ford may eventually become known for creating the engine even if you are the original inventor. In this way, patents protect smaller creators and businesses from being overtaken by established companies.
As a side benefit, patents also mark you or your company as the original inventor or discoverer of a product, process, or plant species.
What is a Trademark?
A trademark, while similar to a patent, is a distinct concept. Registered trademarks are legal protection for a word, phrase, slogan, design, or other types of intellectual property. It can also protect combinations of those things that identify a complete good or service.
A trademark must be used to distinguish your company or the source of goods and services from competitors. For example, Coca-Cola’s logo and red iconography combine to form a classic trademark that is recognized the world over. The Coca-Cola logo and overall aesthetic serve two purposes:
- They help to sell the soft drink to prospective customers
- They help customers identify Coca-Cola from other soft drink brands and types
Trademarks protect designs and original work so that customers don’t get confused between different brands and so that brands can compete fairly with one another.
What Does a Trademark Protect?
A trademark does not protect concepts or inventions. It only protects the individual pieces or composite designs of brand labels, phrases, or important words. They also give trademark owners the exclusive right to use various images and phrases in specific contexts. Similarly, this form of protection prevents others from using similar subject matter or derivative works, phrases, media, and designs that might reasonably confuse target consumers or users.
For example, Toyota has a distinct label that is an ornamental design that can be found on the backs and fronts of each of its motor vehicles. This is a legal trademark since it is a symbol used to identify the Toyota brand and distinguish it from its competitors, like Ford, Chevy, and so on.
Other companies can’t use the Toyota trademark when creating their vehicles. This would impersonate the Toyota brand and lead people to buy a non-Toyota vehicle while believing the vehicle originated from a Toyota factory.
Benefits of Trademarks
Like patents, trademarks have several advantages to businesses. Most crucially, they protect trademarks from being registered by other organizations or persons without your permission. The trademarks can then not be used (legally) except in certain circumstances, such as by gaining your written permission.
Trademarks also benefit companies by preventing unfair competition. As in the above example regarding patents, trademark protections stop larger companies from hijacking the symbols or designs of smaller companies and using them to achieve market dominance.
How to Know Which Protection You Need
Patents and trademarks are both necessary for businesses to create and maintain control of their property and ideas in the wider market. But you should know which protection you need to apply for before filing any paperwork with the government or paying any fees.
Patents are necessary when:
- You’ve created a new product and don’t want your competitors to be able to steal the product’s designs or specifications and build it to compete with you.
- You’ve iterated upon an existing product and created a notable improvement, such that it counts as a separate product by itself. Patenting this improvement can increase your advantage over your competitors.
- You’ve created a new product or process and want to spread the name of your brand throughout your industry. File a patent for that product or process to prevent competitors from taking credit for your idea or development.
Meanwhile, you may wish to file for a trademark if:
- You were creating a new company and came up with an excellent logo design for your business name and brand. File a trademark to prevent someone else from copying the same design or creating a very close design to your original logo look.
- You want to launch a more aggressive marketing campaign and have come up with a particular catchphrase to go along with your business’s iconography and original works of authorship.
However, it’s important to note that filing for both patents and trademarks is a lengthy process. You need to get started on the process as soon as possible to ensure that you secure your patent or trademark protection before a competitor.
Furthermore, every patent or trademark application must be approved by the USPTO. Simply applying for a patent or trademark does not automatically mean your idea or property will gain the protection you desire.
For example, come up with a great logo idea and send in a design to the USPTO. It will take several weeks or months for a legal officer to research the logo’s design and ensure that it isn’t already present in the market elsewhere. If it is, you will be sent a refusal and be required to redo the logo’s design, so it is appropriately different from the existing logo.
Bottom line: try to determine which of the two protections you need so you can apply as early as possible and minimize your odds of rejection.
All in all, patents and trademarks both play important roles in protecting artistic works in the US and the worldwide economy. Understanding how to apply for both patents and trademarks and when they are necessary for your property is vital if you want your business to succeed and not be copied by your competitors.
Not sure where to start, or have additional questions about how to run your business successfully? Luckily, Seek Capital has everything you need to know about running a small business on our blog. Or you can contact one of our financial experts today for more advice, loan assistance, and more!