Understanding Patents and Trademarks
Intellectual property is a business asset. Like other kinds of property, intellectual property needs to be protected from theft and misuse. If you've invented something truly unique, getting a patent gives you the exclusive rights to make, use, import, sell and offer for sale your invention for up to 20 years. Similarly, trademarks protect words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish your goods and services. Trademarks, unlike patents, can be renewed forever as long as they are being used in business.
Business ideas are interesting things. Under the right circumstances, good business ideas can quickly become worth millions of dollars. That alone makes protecting your business ideas worth the effort.
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But how do you protect an idea? After all, an idea isn't like any other asset you own. You can't see it, you can't touch it, and you can't lock it away in a safety deposit box.
For years, inventors have protected their ideas with patents. Small business owners can also benefit from patents and other legal protections, provided they understand how and when to use them.
- What is a patent? The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issues patents to protect certain rights for inventions over a limited period of time. A common misconception is that ideas can be patented. They can't. Patents only apply to tangible mechanisms or processes for doing things.
- What are trademarks? While patents protect things, trademarks protect brands - company names, logos, and other symbols that are associated with a given company or product.
- When is it time for a patent? It may be time for a patent if your company has developed a product or a process that is unique. But when it comes to patents, timing is critical. If you file for a patent before the product or process is fully developed, you risk spending time and money on something that isn't really "patent-able". On the other hand, if you wait too long, you may jeopardize your ability to be approved for a patent. You have one year from the time you go public to file a patent application. After that, it's considered public information and you are simply out of luck.
- How do I apply for a patent? All patent applications go through the USPTO. Although it's possible to complete the application process yourself, you're more likely to receive approval if you hire a patent attorney. Patent attorneys are skilled in researching patents and filing the necessary paperwork. You can (and should) do some preliminary research yourself, but seek out a qualified patent attorney fairly early in the process.
- How do I trademark my product's name? Trademarks are also granted through the USPTO. However, even before you register a name or logo with the USPTO, you can begin to protect yourself by using the ® symbol. By consistently using this symbol after a name or logo, you establish legal ownership over it. However, unless you official register your trademark with the USPTO you will not be able to take advantage of other benefits.
- How long does it take to get a patent or trademark? Obtaining a patent or trademark is not an easy process. Plan on waiting many months or even years for a decision from USPTO.
- How much does it cost to get a patent? Likewise, you need to be aware of the fact that applying for a patent is costly. You can easily spend $25,000 or more on a patent that never gets approved. In time, an approved patent or trademark can pay for itself. But in the short-term, you'll need to be prepared for the time and capital your application will require.
Want to learn more about this topic? If so, you will enjoy these articles:
Valuing Intellectual Property
How to Protect an Idea
Five Questions to Ask the Patent Lawyer
Valuing Intellectual Property
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