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The Small Business Guide to Copyright, Trademark, and Patent

So you finally got your business off the ground and running — congratulations! You’ve got a stellar slogan and logo, you’ve got a shiny website proudly displaying your goods and services, and you’ve even got a smart blog where you share your thoughts on your industry. As your client list grows your days are getting busier and busier.

Well, slow down just a second, partner. Have you made sure all your hard work is protected?

Protecting your business and your intellectual property.

Copywhat? Tradewho?

We see these words every day: © [year],” sometimes with an “All rights reserved” tacked on the end for good measure. [Slogan]™ and [Business Name]® are frequently seen, too. We see them so often, in fact, that we rarely think about what they mean.

All of these symbols confer exclusive rights of ownership and protect an owner from infringement on his or her work by other parties. Basically, they mean no one else can steal your stuff from you — at least not without legal repercussions.

Copyright, trademark, or patent?

Good question! It depends on what exactly you need to protect.


Copyright protects creators of original works of authorship, such as literary, musical, artistic, dramatic, and other certain intellectual property. Songs, writings, paintings, photography are among the works eligible for copyright protection. Note that you don’t have to actually register your work with the United States Copyright Office — copyright is automatically granted on creation. And since March 1, 1989, works are not required to display a copyright notice.


Think: brand names. A trademark is a name, word, symbol, or any combination thereof meant to distinguish one set of goods or services from those of another provider. Think of a trademark symbol as the intellectual equivalent of driving a stake in the ground to claim a piece of land as your own. You don’t need to file any special paperwork or notify any organization in order to start using a trademark symbol.

Registered Trademark®

A registered trademark means, well, that you have gone through the process of filing your trademark and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has approved the application and granted you a federal registration certificate. It’s a solid gold guarantee. Only after you receive this certificate can you use the ® symbol in conjunction with your work.


A patent doesn’t protect a tangible work so much as the idea of it. It’s an intellectual property right granted to an inventor for a limited time in order to “exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States.” Once a patent is granted, the invention must be publicly disclosed.

There are three types of patents: utility patents, which cover processes, machines, manufactured items, or composition of matter; design patents, which cover new, original, and ornamental design of a manufactured item; and plant patents, which cover any distinct and new variety of plant.

To register or not to register?

You may have noticed that it’s not necessary to go through the motions of officially filing with the United States government for copyright or trademark status. You’re free to display the symbols with your work as soon as it’s made. However, it’s important to know that even though copyright or trademark status is automatically granted upon creation, you can only take legal action on someone who steals your work if that work is registered. 

And no matter whether your work is currently copyrighted and trademarked or not, use the symbols. This way, if someone steals your intellectual property, they can’t claim that they didn’t know it belonged to someone else.

Long story short: it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Let’s Do This Thing!

Ready to register your work? Awesome. You can expect to file online or by mail and pay a fee. Tip: if you feel comfortable filing online, the fees are usually lower. Plus, you get the benefit of being able to track your application as it moves through the process.

Get started here:

Copyright registration:

Trademark and patent registration:

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