Trademark or Copyright: Which Do You Need for Your Business?

Owner of a restaurant checking financial business documentations while standing behind counter.
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Every small business has some form of intellectual property associated with it. Intellectual property, or IP, is a valuable company asset. It comes in four types: trademarks, copyrights, patents and trade secrets.

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Of these four types, the most common federally registered pieces are trademarks and copyrights. If you’re new to entrepreneurship, it’s easy to think these terms are interchangeable or have the same function.

Let’s explore the difference between a trademark and a copyright and determine which one your business needs.

What’s a Trademark?

Chances are your small business has at least one trademark associated with it. Trademarks protect the unique differentiators of a small business — e.g., its name, logo, designs, symbols and taglines. 

In some circumstances, even a unique color or scent may be eligible for trademark registration. The scent of Play-Doh was trademarked by Hasbro in 2018 and The Home Depot has trademarked its signature orange shade.

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Why Do You Need a Trademark?

There are a few benefits to filing for a trademark as a business owner. The first is protection. Your business name, logo and designs are all unique ways that customers are able to differentiate your business from competitors. By filing for a trademark, you receive exclusive rights to the mark. This means nobody can plagiarize or infringe upon your trademark without your approval.

The other benefit is peace of mind. Prior to filing for a trademark, you should conduct a name search through the trademark database available from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). 

This search allows you to figure out whether the mark is available or whether similar or existing trademarks are pending registration or have been registered. If you find out your mark is too similar to an existing trademark, or is an exact match, you will need to stop using this mark as soon as possible and brainstorm something else. Before using any trademarks publicly, it’s always a good idea to come up with a few business names or designs and run them through the database to see whether anything similar exists and is already in use.

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What’s a Copyright? 

A copyright is an original work of authorship. The following works are eligible for copyright registration, whether they are published or unpublished:

  • Literary works. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry and articles.
  • Performing arts. Music compositions, lyrics, sound recordings, scripts and stage plays.
  • Visual arts. Artwork, illustrations, jewelry and fabric.
  • Motion pictures. Movies, TV shows, video games and videos.
  • Photographs. Professional images, wedding and family portraits, personal images and selfies.
  • Digital content. Computer programs, databases, blogs and websites.
  • Architectural works. Buildings, architectural plans and drawings.

There is also a small loophole as to what cannot receive a copyright. Individuals may not copyright ideas, facts, systems or methods of operation, as stated by Copyright.gov.

Why Do You Need a Copyright?

Filing for copyright protection shares similarities with filing for trademark protection. A registered copyright is officially on public record with its own certificate of registration. The copyright’s originator also maintains ownership of the copyright.

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While people can certainly sing along to the lyrics of a popular song or record videos of themselves playing it, they cannot claim to be the composer of the music or its lyrics. In the case of unlicensed usage, the originator may request that any videos or content using original works is removed from specific platforms. And, because the person holds a certificate of registration, the request would be granted.

Do You Need a Trademark or Copyright?

By now, you likely have a good idea which part of your small business IP qualifies as a trademark or copyright. Some businesses may have just one form while others have both or even all forms of intellectual property. Once you determine whether you have a trademark or copyright, conduct a name search to ensure it is unique and file an application for registration at the federal level to protect the mark or original works.

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About the Author

Heather Taylor is a senior finance writer for GOBankingRates. She is also the head writer and brand mascot enthusiast for PopIcon, Advertising Week’s blog dedicated to brand mascots. She has been published on HelloGiggles, Business Insider, The Story Exchange, Brit + Co, Thrive Global, and more media outlets. 

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