Protecting your inventions and ideas, known as your intellectual property, is an unending concern for creators. Not only do you have to work on inventing your new product, creating your new piece of art, or refining your process, but you also have to protect it from unscrupulous people who will try to steal your work to make money for themselves. Luckily, the law is designed to help you protect your property through a variety of methods, depending on what kind of intellectual property it is and how it was created. There's the trademark, which is mainly used for logos and other types of branding to protect another business from taking advantage of your brand. Trademarks are helpful if you need to protect your company's public image. There's the patent, which is dedicated to protecting inventors. If you create a brand-new product or even improve upon an established one, you'll want a patent. Finally, there's the copyright, which is meant to protect your creative works, such as music and art. This prevents someone else from printing your art on T-shirts or using your song in their work without compensation.
A trademark is essentially a representation of a company's brand. It encompasses their logo, their colors, the catchphrases used on packaging and in commercials, and any other way someone might identify a brand. To acquire a trademark, you first need to be using the branding you want to protect in your business; you can't register a trademark preemptively. Once you've established your branding, you can file an application online with the Patent and Trademark Office, where they will determine if your trademark is unique and enforceable enough to accept. Once that's done, your brand is officially protected under the law.
Copyright is focused on creative works. This can include music, movies, software, photos, and written works. This version of protection is different from a trademark in that it's designed to be transferred and sold piecemeal; for example, a copyright owner may license their copyright to allow for reproduction but no derivative works. This would mean that someone with the license could copy the work indefinitely but could not change it in any way.
Copyright is unique in that it applies the second you complete your work. There's no lag time during which you must apply for copyright protection; it is automatic. However, there is an optional registration process that clarifies your rights, which can be useful if you choose to use that work commercially. This gives you the ability to file lawsuits based on copyright infringement and receive damages for misuse of your copyright.
A patent protects an invention or process, preventing competitors from stealing your idea. This could include a new type of an existing product or something entirely new. These protections are more expensive than copyright and trademark but also more robust. To acquire a patent, you will need a patent lawyer to help draft your application. If the patent office decides that your invention needs changes to be registered, you may spend some time submitting amendments as well. This can take anywhere from a few months to years.
Your intellectual property really boils down to your thoughts and ideas. Patents, copyrights, and trademarks all protect different types of intellectual property. A patent is merely a set of steps to create an invention, steps that the patent-holder came up with. A copyright protects work that was created in the copyright-holder's brain and then put into the world. A trademark protects the concept of a brand.
Depending on what kind of intellectual property you're trying to protect, you may need to apply for one or more of these types of protection to fully safeguard your work. For instance, if you're starting a business, you will absolutely want trademark protection for your brand, but you may also be selling a new product that you need patent protection for. If you're an artist or performer, it is likely that your intellectual property will require copyright protection.