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Trademark & Copyright Basics

What is a Trademark?

A trademark can be any word, phrase, symbol, design, or a combination of these things that identifies your goods or services. It’s how customers recognize you in the marketplace and distinguish your brand from your competitors.

A trademark:

  • Identifies the source of your goods or services.

  • Provides legal protection for your brand.

  • Helps you guard against counterfeiting and fraud.

A common misconception is that having a trademark means you legally own a particular word or phrase and can prevent others from using it. However, you don’t have rights to the word or phrase in general, only to how that word or phrase is used with your specific goods or services. For example, let's say you use a logo as a trademark for your start-up malware protections company. This doesn't mean you can stop others from using a similar logo for non-malware protections related goods or services. Another common misconception is believing that choosing a trademark that merely describes your goods or services is effective. Creative and unique trademarks are more effective and easier to protect.

What is a copyright?

A copyright applies to artistic, literary, or other created works, such as novels, music, movies, software code, photographs, and paintings that are original and exist in a tangible medium, such as paper, canvas, film, or digital format. Copyright protects your exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, and perform or display the created work, and prevents other people from copying or exploiting the creation without the copyright holder’s permission.

Why should I register my trademark or copyright?

You become a trademark or copyright owner as soon as you start using your trademark with your goods or services or commit your art to a tangible medium.

You establish “common law” rights in your trademark by using it, but those rights are limited, and they only apply to the geographic area in which you’re providing your goods or services (this gets even more complicated with internet-only use, the courts vary state to state on this one and there’s no guaranteed out of state protections). If you want stronger, nationwide rights, you’ll need to apply to register your trademark with the USPTO.

Copyright registration is recommended for a number of reasons and many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered “prima facie” evidence in a court of law.

You’re not required to register your trademark or copyright. However, a registered trademark or copyright provides broader rights and protections than an unregistered one.

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