A female business owner discusses copyright, trademark and service mark options with her intellectual property attorneys.

Copyright, Trademarks and Service Marks: What They Protect and How to Defend Them

It can take many years of hard work to build your brand and establish a reputation that helps attract new business. Your company’s name, logo and other distinguishing characteristics set you apart in the marketplace and help customers find you. But what if a new competitor copies your logo to deceive customers into calling them instead of you? Or you find content that you created published on a competitor’s website, where they’re using it to attract new business? 

Copyrights, trademarks and service marks are some of the tools you might use to protect your business’s intellectual property. While not mandatory, formally registering your ownership of created materials and brand symbols creates legal protections that may help your business avoid IP confusion or theft. Your intellectual property attorneys will advise you on the best ways to protect your IP and keep others from profiting from your business’s success. 

What Copyright Protects

Copyright protects artistic, literary and expressive works. Artworks, songs, photos, novels and computer software are common examples of works that copyright can protect. Under U.S. law, original works of authorship are automatically protected by copyright from the time they’re created, but individuals and businesses may opt to officially register copyrights for added legal protection and benefits. If there’s ever a dispute between two parties about ownership of a piece of written work or a set of technical drawings, the party who holds the copyright may be awarded damages, which can be significant in some instances. If neither party registered a copyright, it could be the start of a legal battle. 

Do I Need a Copyright?

Whether or not your business needs to register any copyrights depends on the nature of your work, among other factors. For example, a company that designs computer programs will likely benefit more from copyright protection than a small insurance firm might. Sometimes a business will also copyright part or all of its website, or other original written content like client guides or training materials. Whether or not your business would benefit from copyright protection is something to discuss with your intellectual property attorneys. 

What Trademarks and Service Marks Protect

A trademark protects the words, phrases and designs that distinguish your business from those of other businesses—essentially, the brand elements that help your customers identify you. The Nike “swoosh” and McDonald’s golden arches are examples of trademarked designs. Things like slogans, mascots and product names may also be protected by trademarks. 

Service marks are a type of trademark specifically relating to businesses that provide services instead of goods. Think of a real estate agent who sells their professional services, but no tangible products. If a real estate agent wanted to protect their logo and business name from infringement by others, they could register service marks rather than trademarks to demonstrate ownership of those elements.  

A business that sells both goods and services may protect its intellectual property with  a combination of trademarks and service marks. For example, take a makeup artist who starts their own line of branded beauty products. Service marks would protect the artist’s branding as it relates to their makeup application business, while trademarks would protect branding related to the products they sell. 

Businesses of all sizes and across all industries can benefit from the IP protection afforded by trademarks and service marks. Your brand and reputation are too valuable to risk. Registering marks gives you legal recourse to defend your business and its intellectual property from opportunists who seek to capitalize on your success. That said, many business owners don’t ever take this important step. It’s a personal decision to be made in discussion with your attorneys.

Registering Copyrights and Marks 

The process of registering a copyright or mark can be somewhat arduous. It’s not required, but business owners often work with intellectual property attorneys to navigate this process and avoid expensive, time-consuming (and sometimes even fatal) mistakes. 

Copyrights are registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Applicants must submit a completed application and copies of the works that are being protected. It may take several months after submission to receive a response.

Trademarks and service marks are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The first step in registering a trademark or service mark is, at a minimum, completing a comprehensive search of existing registered marks, some of which can be done using the USPTO’s public database. An application will be denied if any of the elements you want to register are too similar to current registered marks, so skipping this step can prolong the registration process. Once you’ve verified that no similar mark is already registered, there’s a long and complicated application to complete and submit. All together, the registration process may take at least six months, but it could take as much as a year or longer.

Defending Copyrights, Trademark and Service Marks

Once you’ve registered a copyright, there’s nothing to do unless someone infringes on it. A copyright generally doesn’t even need to be renewed during the owner’s lifetime. By comparison, registered trademarks and service marks require much more active monitoring and management. If a business stops using its marks for commerce, the USPTO must be notified. Owners must also file maintenance documents with the USPTO every five years and apply for renewal every 10 years.  

Once copyrights and/or marks are registered, you’re then free to focus on the work of running your business— that is, until you learn that someone is trying to infringe your IP. An intellectual property infringement monitoring service may flag something online, or someone you know might reach out if they notice something suspicious, like a competitor copying your logo. 

If you do learn of possible copyright or trademark infringement, your intellectual property attorney will advise you on the best steps needed to address it. If the registration was completed correctly, your business may be able to stop the infringement and possibly even be awarded damages. 

The intellectual property attorneys at Sassoon Cymrot Law, LLC are here to help clients with many elements of IP protection, including registering and defending copyrights, trademarks and service marks. These can be complex and difficult issues that business owners shouldn’t try to navigate alone. If you have questions about protecting your intellectual property, contact us today!

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