Protecting Your Ideas and Inventions
Patents | Trademarks | Copyright | Trade Dress | Trade Secrets
When you’ve come up with a better mousetrap, or written the Great American Novel, you want to know that your creative efforts are protected and that no one else can benefit from your hard work without your permission. The founding fathers agreed, which is why they specifically allowed for patent and copyright protection in the U.S. Constitution.
At The Legal Café, we can put you in touch with an experienced intellectual property lawyer, someone who can help you take the right steps to fully benefit from your creative work. Complete our online form or visit us at the Café at 114 Main Street in the courthouse district in Fort Worth.
The Most Common Ways to Protect Your Intellectual Capital
There are three principal tools you can use to safeguard your ideas or inventions:
- Patents – A patent gives the holder the exclusive right, for a limited period of time, to determine who manufactures, sells, uses, or distributes a specific invention. The current term of a patent is 20 years from the date of the patent application. There are different types of patents—utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. The most commonly issued patent is the utility patent, which includes machines, processes, manufacturing methods, unique compositions of matter or materials, and improvements of an existing idea. To qualify for a patent, the invention must meet three criteria:
- It must be novel or new, unknown, or unused before this invention;
- It must have utility or be functional in some way; and
- The invention must not be obvious.
Patents are applied for through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A patent-holder has the right to bring an infringement lawsuit against anyone who uses the patented item without permission.
Trademarks – The primary function of a trademark is to protect the goodwill of your business. Trademarks protect distinctive words, images, slogans, logos, symbols, and other objects or devices used to identify products in the marketplace. Trademarks are issued in potentially unlimited 10-year periods, but you must prove that you are actually using the mark to renew protection.
To qualify for a trademark, you must show that the proposed mark is either “inherently distinct,” or that you have established “secondary meaning” in the mark. An inherently distinct mark is one unlike any other found in the marketplace—a made-up name for a product, for example. Secondary meaning typically arises because of advertising or other marketing efforts—it’s when consumers see a common term and associate it with your product. Examples include “Whopper” and “Holiday Inn.”
Trademarks are also obtained through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The owner of a trademark has a legal right to demand that unauthorized users cease and desist, and to recover compensation for unauthorized use.
Copyrights – Copyright protects the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself. Copyright is considered to subsist, which means it goes into effect immediately upon the creative expression of an idea. You can, however, register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, which will give you extra protection. The term of copyright protection, which has increased over the last 225 years, is currently “life of the author plus 70 years,” which means that the copyright will continue to be held by the creator’s estate for 70 years after his or her death.
It’s a common misperception that you must put a copyright mark on your work to receive protection. There are only three requirements to qualify for protection:
- You must show a work of authorship;
- The work must be original; and
- The work must be fixed in a tangible medium.
Copyright protects a wide range of creative expressions, including musical, literary, artistic, and dramatic efforts, such as novels, poetry, non-fiction, news reporting, movies, songs, paintings, sculpture, and other artistic mediums. It also protects computer software, architecture, and certain design, such as furniture.
To connect with an experienced intellectual property attorney today, fill out our online form or stop by the Café.
Lesser-Known Intellectual Property Tools
As the laws of intellectual property have developed and expanded, new strategies have evolved to help protect inventions and idea:
- Trade secrets – Trade secrets typically involve confidential information about a business product or service and are customarily protected through confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements. The recipe for Coca-Cola has long been protected as a trade secret. The owners of a trade secret maximize protection of the secret by requiring anyone with access to it to sign a binding agreement not to use or divulge the information without permission. When that happens, the owner may sue for breach of contract.
- Trade dress – The trade dress of a product is its physical appearance in the marketplace, including its packaging. A competitor who intentionally copies the distinct physical look of a product and/or its packaging in an effort to confuse the buying public as to the source of the goods may be held to violate the owner’s trade dress rights. Trade dress is enforced under the Lanham Act, a federal law that protects against unfair business practices.
Come to The Legal Café Today
We have the tools and resources to help you find the right lawyer to protect your creative ideas or inventions. Complete our online form or visit the Café to start the process.