When you work hard to develop a product and start a business, there is nothing more disheartening than someone else trying to capitalize on your name and work. After all, you are the one who put in the hours, and poured your heart and soul into it — there is no reason that someone else should be able to waltz in and use what you have created without compensating you.
Yet such thefts happen all the time. Even if a competitor doesn’t overtly start using the same name, or selling a product that is a direct copy of something that you developed, their brand may be similar enough to yours to cause confusion — and customers to go to them instead of you, costing you revenues.
So what is an entrepreneur to do when starting a business? How can you protect your brand and prevent other people from capitalizing on your hard work? The answer lies in copyright and trademark protection.
Defining The Terms
The first step to protecting yourself when starting a business is to understand the difference between the types of intellectual property protection, and what they offer you: Trade names, trademarks, and copyrights.
A trade name is simply the registered name of your business if it is anything other than your name. For example, if you call your business “Mary Smith Consulting,” then you will need to register that name with your state as a DBA (doing business as). If you already have a business and want to operate as something else, or create an offshoot of the business that will operate under a different name, then you need to register that name as a DBA with your state. A trade name allows you to do business within your state as that particular entity.
A trademark isn’t the same as a trade name. A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, or design that is specifically associated with your business and an integral part of your brand. For example, the slogan “Just Do It!” is a trademark of Nike. When such an element is trademarked, it cannot be used by another business without express written permission and in some cases, payment of a fee. Unlike a trade name, which is just the name of your business in your state, a trademark protects your intellectual property throughout the U.S., as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) manages it.
Finally, copyright applies to your specific intellectual property, more specifically, your creative works. Usually granted to works like books, movies, television shows, songs, and web content, copyright controls how your work is reproduced, distributed, and presented publically. For example, if you write an original blog post, you hold the copyright to it, and no other website can republish the post in its entirety without your permission. You don’t necessarily need to register a copyright for all of your works (copyrighting all of your blog posts, for example, would be costly and time-consuming) but more substantial original works, such as a book of your best posts, should be copyrighted.
So What’s Protected?
When starting a business, trade names, trademarks, and copyrights each provide different levels of protection. Trade names, for example, only protect your name in the state where you are registered. Essentially, registering your DBA with your state only prevents any other business in your state from having the same name, but does nothing to prevent a business elsewhere from using the same name. If you plan to expand beyond your home state, or online, you are most likely better off seeking a trademark instead, so no other business anywhere can use your name.
Trademarks, on the other hand, prevent the unauthorized use of your business name, logo, slogan, etc. by anyone not associated with your business, regardless of where they are located. They are more difficult to get since you have to prove that your property is “trademarkable,” which includes ensuring that there isn’t already an existing trademark with that name. At the same time, when you trademark a name, you can use the trademark symbol, seek damages for inappropriate use (even if the use is merely “close to” your trademark, enough so that it could cause confusion), and streamline the process of securing domain names for your business.
Copyright offers many of the same rights as trademarks, giving you the right to seek damages from those who copy your work. As with a trademark, holding a copyright also allows you to prevent the import of foreign goods with unauthorized use of your property. This helps stop piracy and maintains the integrity of your product.
Which form of protection is right for you when starting a business depends on your business model, and what needs protecting. Many businesses are perfectly fine with nothing more than a trade name while others need full protection. In any case, you do not want to leave your intellectual property to chance when starting a business.
What You Need To Know When Starting A Business