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Trademark and copyright symbols—™, ®, and ©—frequently appear next to brand names, logos, and titles. While people often mix them up, they have distinct roles. Small business owners should grasp their differences and overlaps to navigate intellectual property rights effectively.

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What is a trademark?

A trademark uses a unique symbol, word, or phrase to identify a business, product, or service. The ™ symbol indicates a trademark that’s been established through consistent business use. In contrast, the ® symbol signifies a federal trademark registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Using another business’s trademark without permission can lead to trademark infringement and potential litigation.

Trademark examples

Trademarks safeguard your business’s identity under intellectual property protections. They shield everything from names and logos to distinct symbols and memorable phrases. Examples of what a trademark protects include:

Brand names: Amazon, Snapchat, or Timberland.

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Brand slogans: Lines such as “Open Happiness” (Coca-Cola) or “Save Money. Live Better.” (Walmart).

Brand symbols: The Apple’s apple or Puma’s leaping cat.

How long does a trademark last?

Trademarks can last indefinitely when used in regular commerce. But mere use isn’t enough. Holders need to actively show they’re consistently using their trademark. A trademark holder must file a Section 8 declaration every 10 years post-registration to demonstrate active, ongoing use. Miss this step, and the trademark becomes “dead.” Then, others can claim and register it.

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How to register a trademark

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To register a trademark (®) for your small business, you first need to draft a trademark application. It’s advisable to engage a patent and trademark attorney for this—their expertise can prove invaluable in navigating trademark and copyright law. Once drafted, conduct a trademark search using the USPTO’s Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) to ensure your desired words, marks, or combinations aren’t already in use.

Pro tip: Keep an eye out for “dead” trademarks, i.e., those neglected by their original owners. They’re available and could be a good fit for your business. 

Once you’ve selected a unique word, mark, or phrase, take the steps below to file your application: 

  1. Fill in your name and address.
  2. Specify your citizenship and business entity.
  3. Provide a correspondence address if it’s different.
  4. Attach a drawing of your mark, unless it’s just a word or phrase.
  5. Describe the mark.
  6. List the services or goods under the trademark.
  7. Identify the class of services or goods using the USPTO class list.
  8. Offer an example of the mark’s use.
  9. State when you started using the mark.
  10. Add a signature, either yours or an authorized representative’s.
  11. Pay the fee, which varies between $225 to $625, based on the trademark type. 

After completing the application, head over to the Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS) for submission. The TEAS has two options:

TEAS Plus: This is the simpler and more affordable option, with a lower rejection rate. But only applicants whose trademark relates to the goods and services listed and described in the Trademark ID Manual can apply.

TEAS Standard: This requires applicants to provide a custom description for their trademark. If the goods and services pertaining to your trademark are not listed in the manual, this is the right option to use.

Copyright law goes beyond just safeguarding a logo or catchphrase. It ensures that creators of significant works have the sole authority to showcase, share, duplicate, or enact their creation. If others mirror or use parts of the creation, the owner can ask for compensation.

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Rooted in the US Constitution, many refer to it as the “copyright clause.” The architects of the US legal framework highlighted the essence of shielding creators’ rights, making copyright a cornerstone of American legal thought. Its influence now stretches across global intellectual property norms.

TV episodes, films, melodies, novels, and even tweets fall under copyright’s umbrella. This protection spans the creator’s lifetime, then adds another 70 years. Post this period, the creation transitions to the public domain, becoming accessible to everyone. 

 Popular examples of copyright include:

  • Original works, such as designs that make a product unique, like the cut of a shirt or the curve of a chair.
  • Intellectual works, such as custom software and specific computer code.
  • Literary and artistic works, such as novels that grip you or paintings that tell a story.

The © symbol you spot on images or at a book’s beginning indicates copyright. Using these materials without proper authorization leads to copyright infringement.

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Seeking to secure your original creation with copyright? While consulting an attorney simplifies the process, you can handle the application on your own.

To be eligible for copyright under US law, a creation needs to be both original and captured in a concrete form—be it print, film, or digital. Once you’re certain your work ticks these boxes, follow these steps with the US Copyright Office:

  1. Fill out the application form. Opt for the online method for quicker processing and lower costs. Yet, if you prefer, you can send a paper form.
  2. Pay the requisite fee. The electronic filing costs are $45 for a sole creator with a single work, or $65 for the standard process. If you choose the paper route, the fee increases to $125. Consult the US Copyright Office’s website or an attorney to navigate any extra charges.
  3. Provide the work samples. Depending on your creation type, the number of samples will differ.
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Both trademark and copyright laws fall under the umbrella of intellectual property protection, yet they serve different purposes.

What’s common?

Both trademarks and copyrights offer legal protections for your creations. With these safeguards in place, unauthorized parties face significant legal consequences if they attempt to misuse or appropriate your work.

How do they differ?

Let’s look at it this way:

  • Trademarks act like a brand’s signature. It defends those unique elements that signify your brand. Imagine the distinct sound of Netflix’s opening, or McDonald’s golden arches. These unique identifiers, from logos to slogans, earn protection via trademarks.
  • Copyrights, however, cater to in-depth creative works. Suppose your business crafted a detailed guide, shot an original photo series, or produced a documentary. Copyright ensures your exclusive rights over these. Just like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels or Steven Spielberg’s films, these creations find their shield in copyright.

In essence, while trademarks shield your brand’s identity markers, copyrights protect your deep creative outputs. 

Businesses lean on trademark protection to secure their brand identity. Logos, unique design elements, and catchy slogans all fall under this banner. If a nearby competitor echoes your brand in some way, there’s merit in trademarking elements like your logo or business name. This prevents customer confusion and ensures you have legal avenues if another brand mimics your brand to fool your clientele.

On the flip side, copyrights cater to deeper creative expressions. If your company pens business guides, shoots original videos, or crafts art, copyright is your go-to. And like its trademark counterpart, it offers legal channels if others exploit your work for profit.

Getting the right protection for your business

Choosing the right intellectual property protection strengthens your business. Understanding the difference between trademark and copyright prevents misuse. Make informed decisions, and when unsure, seek legal advice. Proper protection differentiates your business and safeguards your unique assets from misuse.

No, trademarks and copyrights coexist, each shielding different types of creations.

Can I trademark my business name?

You can trademark your business name, plus any design elements, marketing phrases, or logos unique to your brand.

No. Copyright protection doesn’t extend to names, logos, short phrases, or slogans. 

Trademarking is ideal for logos, while copyrights suit more detailed works like art, books, or music.

™, ®, and ©.

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