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March 10, 2009


A patent is a contract between the inventor of a product and the government. The inventor supplies the government with a detailed analysis and disclosure of all aspects of the invention. In return, the inventor receives exclusive rights to the invention for a specified amount of time. After the specified time has passed, the government will make the records public and available to everyone. It is important to make sure that you are not infringing on any one else's patent if you are designing a product.

There are three different types of patents. Utility patents are the most common; these are 17 years in length and begin on the date of issuance from the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). A utility patent provides the inventor protection from other people using or profiting from the patented invention. Another type of patent, the design patent, protects new and original designs. These are valid for 14 years and give the inventor the exclusive right to use, sell, and profit from his or her invention. Plant patents are rare in nature and are issued for new varieties of manufacturing plants. They are issued for 17 years.

A patent application must contain everything associated with the design and production of the item you wish to have protected. It should contain an introduction section, a description of the invention, and direct claims of what makes your invention deserving of a patent. This should also be accompanied by a declaration of oath signed by the inventor. When applying for a patent, it is a good idea to have a patent lawyer guide you through the process. They will be able to make sure you fill out all of the necessary forms and present your information in such a way that you have the best chance of obtaining a patent.

A trademark is a word, design, symbol, slogan or combination thereof that identies a product or service with its source (the company). Trademarks, denoted with the symbol TM, provide notice to other businesses and individuals in the marketplace that you own the exclusive rights within the United States to the trademarked material. Registering entitles you to bring legal action against any party infringing on your trademarked material. Registered trademarks carry the symbol R to identify them. It is important to know that you are not required to officially register your trademark on a national or state level. Previous use of a trademark denotes legal ownership. However, it is more secure to register your trademark on a national and state-by-state level to ensure protection. A trademark is ideal for a company that will be conducting business in several states and wants to protect the trademarked information on a national level. Trademarks are filed with the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO).

Copyrights protect original works of intellectual property, including written materials, music, art, and computer programs. Any material that is copyrighted is accompanied by the ) symbol. What most people do not realize is that there is a much easier way to copyright your work that avoids the paperwork and fees associated with registering it with the federal government. If you simply attach the ) symbol to your material, the law deems that you have made the appropriate notice of your piece of work. Copyrights usually can be obtained without the help of attorney. To register, you must fill out a Form TX, attach the fee and forward it to the Library of Congress for approval. The copyright is good for the life of the author plus fifty years. For institutions, the term of the copyright is seventy-five years from publication.

Things to think about

  • Does your business own any material that should be registered for a trademark, copyright, or patent?
  • How will filing protect your business?
  • In what cases will you need the assistance of a lawyer?


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