What is the difference between a trademark, copyright, patent, and trade secret?
They all fall under the umbrella of intellectual property. Most people refer to that as IP.
Trademarks protect elements of your brand. So, when you think of your brand, you think of your business name. Maybe you’re doing business as your name; maybe it’s a product or service name, logo, tagline – those are all things that trademarks can protect.
Copyright protects your content – all of the content that you are floating out into the world. For example, this video is protected by copyright. Blogs that you write, training manuals you create, photographs – any content protected by copyright.
Then you have trade secrets that protect anything that’s meant to be kept a secret. This might include a special business process, formula, or recipe – any of those things would be protected as a trade secret.
And then lastly, patents protect inventions.
“You’ve probably heard these terms before, but that’s a clean and concise definition of each of them.”
A lot of business owners mistakenly believe that they automatically own their business name just because they filed for an LLC or corporation with the state or because they got the domain names or the social media handles – and that’s a misconception.
The reality is that a US federal trademark registration is necessary to establish exclusive legal rights and protection in the names that you are actually doing business as. Therefore, it is important to secure trademarks with the US Patent and Trademark Office to legally establish ownership in the names you’re building your business on.
As for copyright, that sticks automatically. But there are benefits to securing a copyright registration from the US Copyright Office – especially when it comes to having to enforce those rights. Registration is necessary, and it’s a prerequisite to any litigation or enforcement matters.
As for patents, you can only secure a patent from the US Patent Office, so that’s a formal.
And then trade secrets are protected through contract. You protect your secret by keeping it a secret – so only sharing with people on a need-to-know basis. For those with whom you are sharing, make sure you have the right contracts in place to ensure that it’s not leaked out and remains confidential.
“Have you found yourself to be laissez-faire about any of these things? If so, it might be time to legally protect you, your business, and your intellectual property.”
What can you actually trademark?
Trademarks can protect anything that’s meant to serve as a source identifier. And what I mean by that is that when your prospective clients and customers see your name out there or see a course name or see that you’re doing a podcast, you want them to automatically associate that with you. You don’t want it associated with your competitors.
A trademark gives you the exclusive legal right to use that name in your industry. So, you’d want to protect things such as your business name, your doing business as name, the name of your podcast, the name of your blog, or the name of an event you’re doing.
Maybe you’re doing an annual conference or event, and that’s something that you would want to protect with trademarks. If there’s a tagline you’re using or a logo you’re using, those are other things. If you’re writing a book series, that’s something else that you would want to trademark as well to ensure that you have protection.
I did it for my book series, “Like a Boss.” And I also copyrighted “Like a Boss” for another series that I am working on. So you want to protect those things to make sure that when people see that name, see that brand, they think of you and not your competitors.
When’s the best time to start the trademark process?
Ideally, you want to start it before you adopt a name – before you start using it. You can start the trademark process before you even start using a name. It’s called an intent to use trademark application. The best time to do it is before you adopt it. This allows you to do your research, do your trademark search, and make sure there are no issues or conflicts that you could run into before starting the trademark process. So I would say that’s the most important time to do it.
The reality is business owners don’t do it until after the fact. First, they want to see the concept work. So, they want to see if they make money, and then they want to protect their IP.
Other times, in addition to before you actually adopt the use of a name or logo, you definitely need to protect your trademarks before you license. You can’t license anything that you don’t own. So, for example, if you’re a course creator, or have some kind of mastermind program, and you’re sharing content, you want to make sure that you have IP ownership before licensing.
Also, for any brand extension, for instance, maybe you started doing one-on-one services, and now you want to expand it into doing something else. That’s another time where you’d want to make sure that the trademark that you want to expand into this new territory is available for you and not infringing.
Also, if you want to expand geographically. Let’s say you’re a local business, and now you want a more nationwide presence, or maybe more of an international presence – that’s when you would want to consider the trademark process.
And lastly, before you start hiring anyone. If you start as a solopreneur and now, you’re hiring independent contractors or employees, that’s a time when you want to protect yourself. You don’t want to allow for the opportunity for anyone who’s working for you to claim intellectual property rights to the content you’ve created.
There have been record-breaking numbers for trademark filings with the US Patent and Trademark Office. 2020 was a record-breaking year. What’s important about that is that people are starting to recognize the importance and value of trademarks. They’re investing in their trademarks. It shows that economic trends are going up – so that’s a good thing.
I think this is happening because trademarks have become more mainstream in popular culture. Now you can read a news article or watch Entertainment Tonight, and they’re talking about trademark disputes or trademark issues. It’s become more of a buzzword. People now recognize it.
The reality is that all businesses have trademarks – but there’s only value if they’re protected.
3 Action Steps
- Understand that just because you filed for an LLC, web domains, or social media handles, that you do not automatically own your business name.
- Trademark anything that’s meant to serve as a source identifier for your business.
- Start the trademark process as soon as possible in order to protect you and your business.
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