INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY CATEGORIES
As an attorney who works with intellectual property matters, I am often approached by clients who have created or developed intellectual property, and they want to know how they can protect it. A client may have invented a new device which he wants to market to companies in a given industry. Another client may make her living as a photographer, in which case she would want to protect her rights in her photographs. Other clients may own their own businesses, and they would want to prevent competitors from doing business under an identical or similar name. Frequently, however, persons with no experience in legal matters may be confused about what kind of protection they need for their intellectual property — a registered trademark, copyright, or patent.
First, a trademark (sometimes also called a service mark) is usually a word or symbol used to identify and distinguish the goods or services of one person or company from another. Familiar examples would be “Ford” for the Ford Motor Company, or the M-shaped “golden arches” of McDonald’s. Trademark rights arise primarily from use of the mark in commerce; such use may give rise to what is called a “common law” trademark, but you can obtain far superior rights and protection by registering your mark with the United States Patent & Trademark Office (or, to a lesser extent, with the California Secretary of State’s office).
While a trademark registration serves to protect exclusive rights to use a particular name or mark in association with goods or services, a copyright registration serves to protect rights in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated. In plain English, this means that, to register a copyright in a creative work, the work must have at least some minimal amount of originality, and it must be expressed in some tangible form — be it in written words, visual art or design, etc. Unlike trademarks, copyrights in the United States are almost exclusively a matter of federal law, with a few obscure exceptions. Copyright registrations are obtained from the U.S. Copyright Office.
Lastly, a patent registration will protect your right as an inventor to exclude others, for a limited time, from making, using, or selling your invention (be it a device, a process, a chemical compound, etc.) in the United States or importing the invention into the United States. If you own a patent, you essentially have a temporary monopoly over the subject of the patent. For example, usually for a period of several years, a new drug will be offered exclusively by the company that developed it, before eventually the patent expires and “generic” versions of that drug begin to appear in stores. Patent registrations, like copyright registrations, are obtained from the U.S. federal government, specifically the United States Patent and Trademark Office (which also, as the name implies, issues federal trademark registrations).
Whether you own your own business, create your own artistic works, or develop new inventions at home (or all three!), there are concrete steps you can take to protect your intellectual property and safeguard the results of your hard work, and the first step is knowing what kind of registration you should seek.