This post was written by Jackie Zimmermann and originally appeared on NerdWallet on September 5, 2017. It is reposted here with permission.
If you’re a small-business owner looking to profit from your invention or artistic work, you should learn to protect your intellectual property ASAP.
What is intellectual property?
Intellectual property is any invention or piece of original work you’ve personally developed, such as your business’s name, logo, products, marketing materials and designs. Protecting your intellectual property helps prevent others from using or copying it, and if someone does copy it, you have recourse.
There are three main ways to protect your intellectual property. Here’s what you should know about each of them.
What it covers: Copyrights cover original creative works, such as art, music and writing. The text you create for your marketing brochure could fall into this category.
Is it required? Technically, it’s not required. Copyright registration is voluntary, and your creative work is protected as soon as you create it. However, registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office makes it public record.
What’s the downside? A copyright doesn’t last forever. A work will enter the public domain 70 years after the author’s death. It also covers only how you present ideas, not the ideas themselves.
How to register: You can apply for a copyright online for a $35 fee. You can also file a paper form for $65.
What it covers: Patents prevent others from making, using or selling your original inventions or discoveries.
Is it required? Yes, it’s required. Without a patent, others will be able to make, use or sell your invention, and you won’t be able to sue.
What’s the downside? Filing a patent is an extensive process, and you’ll likely get better results if you work with a patent lawyer. However, that will drive up the cost. According to the American Intellectual Property Law Association, the median fee paid to a lawyer filing an original, minimally complex patent in 2016 was $7,000. If you’re up for tackling the project yourself, you can file on your own.
How to register: Review the instructions for filing a patent here.
What it covers: Trademarks protect names, symbols or designs that distinguish who owns the piece of work. Your company name and logo fall into this category.
Is it required? Technically, it’s not required. But you can file trademarks with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to enhance your rights. This will legally identify your right to use the name, symbol or mark, and the mark will be searchable in the trademark office’s database.
What’s the downside? You’ll have to make registration updates.
How to register: You can apply for a trademark online. Fees range from $225 to $400.