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While protecting intellectual property is critical when starting a new company, the differences between copyrights, patents, and trademarks are not always clearly understood by small-business owners, and that can spell trouble in the future.
Here’s a basic overview based on information available from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO):
Copyrights. A copyright protects an original artistic or literary work. Copyright protection is provided to the authors of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and other intellectual works. Available to published and unpublished works, copyrights are registered by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.
Trademarks. A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols, or designs that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others. A servicemark identifies and distinguishes the source of a service. The "TM" (trademark) or "SM" (servicemark) can be used when you claim rights in a mark, whether an application has been filed with the USPTO or not. You may only use the federal registration symbol "®" after the USPTO registers a mark.
Patents. Patents protect inventions. Issued by the USPTO, patents exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling, or importing the invention. There are three types of patents: Utility, Design, and Plant. A new patent provides protection for 20 years from the date the patent application was filed.