Patents, Trademarks, and Copyright

Apple and Samsung are in court again. Again! But, when you spend the grueling, hard time to come up with something novel, you do not and cannot allow someone to just appropriate it without giving you credit. You also are entitled to payment.

Apple and Samsung are disputing patents though. This case and some recent client consultations I have had make me think this is a good time to go over the basics of idea protection in the United States. Let us begin with some basic definitions. Copyright is handled through the US Copyright Office. Trademark and patent are both registered through the same office aptly called the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Copyright is the simplest and least disputed of the three registrations. The Copyright Office registers original written, performance, photographic and architecture works for a fee as small as $35 per work. The letter ‘c’ in a circle and the year symbolizes the copyright and your claim to the work. The year is important because copyright extends for 75 years from the origination date. You do not have to register a work for it to be protected. From the first moment you create a work, it is protected. If someone violates your copyright and you need intervention from the courts, you will need to register the work.

Trademarks are typically applied to visual symbols or constructions that are used to represent a brand, business, or individual. Often, these symbols or constructions are logos, but not always. You can also trademark phrases. The capital ‘TM’ symbolize your claim of a trademark. Once the claim is registered, you may use the capital ‘R’ in a circle to indicate a registered trademark.

Patents are reviewed for inventions or novel approaches to a task. Three types exist: plant, design, or utility. Utility patent is the most common. Fees required are termed the issue fee and the publication fee. Once your application goes in, a team evaluates whether the submission is indeed unique enough to be considered novel and worthy if patent protection. You may be surprised at what has been able to receive patent protection. Companies are also surprised, which is why patents are the subject of many legal claims and disputes.

U.S-patent-and-trademark-officeThe Example
Let’s say that you have written a book. Once you have typed it out in a tangible form, it is your original work and therefore copyright eligible. You can feel free to use the copyright symbol to let others know that the work is yours and eligible for copyright registration. In order to register the copyright, you must complete forms from the USPTO and submit a copy of the work to be archived.

You may design a book cover for the book with a unique symbol that is also your unique creation. You think to yourself, “This would make a great t-shirt line.” You will want to trademark the design. Remember, it’s not the t-shirt itself you are trademarking. Fill out the requisite USPTO forms and include a description and digital copy of the design. This protects the work from copy cats.

While playing around with t-shirt designs, you cut one down the front. You see in a unique clasp system that creates a ruffle effect down the front. The sewing technique, clasp system, and the combinatory ruffle effect could each be the subjects of patents. You will often want a mechanical engineer to map and illustrate precisely the process and result. You fill out paperwork and seek to protect your original work from knock offs.

Remember, registration of your work does not mean that others will not infringe, copy, or knock off. If someone takes your work as their own, you still have to go to court to defend your registration. Registration is your ace in court to prove to the judge that your ideas have been appropriated without your consent or compensation.