Protect Your Home Business Creations From Thieves

How to Trademark, Copyright, and Patent Your Home Business Creations

Intellectual Property Protection
Credit: alexsl | Getty Images

As you start and grow your home business, you’ll create materials that become your products or represent your business. Because these items are the source of income or brand image, you’ll want to protect them from unauthorized use or theft. There are several parts of your business you can protect including your written or artistic content, such as blog content and books, logo and tagline, and original products or formulas.

Here’s how to protect your intellectual property.

Trademark

A trademarked name is protected from use by others who may damage or dilute your brand image. Along with your business name, you can trademark your logo and tagline; however, each item will require its own application. To obtain a trademark in the United States:

  1. Create a strong trademark. Your mark will come to represent your brand, so make sure the item(s) you want to trademark will do the job. You can be creative when it comes to making a trademark, but it can’t use a surname or full name or likeness, be offensive, indicate the geographic origins of the product or service, be a translation of a generic foreign word, or already be in use.
  2. Make sure item(s) you want to protect aren’t already trademarked. Do a trademark search for your business name, tagline or slogan, logo or other graphics.
  3. File a trademark application online. Your application will need to include the name, or in the case of a logo, a description of the mark. It should also provide information about the products or services that will be associated with the mark. You’ll be asked to pay a fee, which is several hundred dollars. You’ll need to check with the US Patent and Trademark Office for current fees.
  1. Check the status of your trademark. It can take several months to find out if your trademark will be approved or if there are problems.
  2. Protect your mark. As mentioned, your trademark will become a symbol of the brand. If you offer subpar products, services or customer support, you can ruin your brand as represented by your trademark. But you also want to monitor how other use or misuse your trademark.

    You can use TM for goods or SM for service trademarks that have not been officially registered. Once registered, you can use ® (R with the circle around it) to show your trademark. For best results and the most protection, consider hiring a trademark attorney or expert.

    Copyright

    In the digital age, the theft of copyrighted work isn’t as uncommon as you’d hope. Sometimes it’s unknowing bloggers using a graphic or YouTuber using a music they don’t own. Other times it’s blatant theft of ebooks or website content, repackaged and published by someone else. It’s so frequent that it can be difficult to find it all. Further, if you do find someone taking your work, it can be a hassle to make them stop. While the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was enacted to protect you, it also sets forth how to file a claim of copyright, and depending on the person taking the content, your claim may be ignored, or take a long time to be resolved.

    There is often confusion about what can and can’t be copyrighted. While ideas can’t be protected, how those ideas are expressed (text, graphics, music, etc), can be. Further, using the works without permission, even if giving the creator credit as being the source of the work, can still be a violation of the copyright law.

    All your original written or artistic work (i.e. art or music) is copyrighted at the time you create them, but to defend that copyright in a court of law, you should obtain an official copyright from the U.S. Copyright Office. Here’s how:

    1. Create a copy of the work to be sent to the U.S. Copyright Office. You can copyright your website, software, written materials (i.e. books), artwork, graphics, videos, and music as long as they are your own original creations.
    2. Visit the US Copyright Office Online and create an account. You can file online or through the mail. Online submissions are processed faster.
    3. Submit your application providing information and uploading a digital copy of your work.  
    4. Pay fee, which is currently $35 for a single author submission of a single work.
    5. Follow up by sending a “hard” copy of your work. These can be print items, audio or video cassettes or CDs/DVDs, microform, or photographs.
    1. Show your copyright by using the copyright symbol © on your protected materials. You can use this symbol on items you created whether they’ve been officially trademarked or not.
    2. Check the status of your copyright. Filing online can take six to ten months to receive an official copyright. Processing time for paper submissions is ten to fifteen months.
    3. Protect your work. It can be difficult to know when or who is taking your work. Further, it might be a fruitless effort to stop it. With that said, if you do come across someone stealing your work, you can take steps to stop it. First, you can send a cease and desist letter. Often, if the thief is simply clueless, they’ll remove the work. If the stolen work is online, you can send in a DMCA complaint to the owner and/or the owner’s web host. If that doesn’t result in action, you have to decide if you want to hire a lawyer. If you feel like you’re losing money or your brand is being hurt, it might be worth taking legal action.

    Patent

    A patent provides protection for an invention, design, or formula for 20 years. You can get a patent based on a design or the finished product. For example, if you’ve invented a product you want to sell in your home business, you can apply for a patent on the product to prevent others from copying it and selling it themselves. With that said, a patent also puts your plans in public, and while it protects your design, it doesn’t stop others from seeing your design and then making changes to it to create their own original product. Further, the patent only protects you in the United States (or the country you file in). You would need to file an international patent if you do business outside of your country and want to protect your product.

    The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office offers a variety of patent types including a utility patent and design patent. To qualify, your invention needs to be useful, unique, and non-obvious (not a logical change in an existing patent). Getting a patent is an expensive, involved, complex process that can take years. As a result, it’s best to do market research to ensure your product idea is potentially profitable and hire a patent attorney to do the work. To obtain a patent:

    1. Search U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website to make sure your idea isn't patented. Search keywords and terms that describe your patent and what your patented object does.
    2. Prepare designs or a prototype of your product or idea. You don’t need the completed product, but you do need blueprints or other items that accurately and completely represent your design.
    3. Fill out the patent application online. You can file by mail if you prefer as well. You can start with a provisional patent application, which allows you to claim “patent pending” status, and gives you a year to file for the patent. This option is less expensive and gives you a filing date in case you need to protect your idea from a similar competing idea submitted later (the one who submits the idea first gets the patent). To get your provisional or to file for the full patent, you’ll need to submit the fee (which varies), a data sheet with your product, invention, formula information, drawings and other items that might be required based on the type of patent you’re applying for. For the full patent, you’ll also need to disclose a statement that you are the true inventor and all information that relates to the originality of your idea.
    4. Check the status of your patent. Patents can take years to get, but you can check the status of your submission through the US Patent and Trademark Office.

    Protect Your Idea Without a Patent

    If you don’t want to put in the time or can’t afford the expense to patent your invention, you can still take action to protect your product. First, have contractors you hire in the creation of the product to sign a contract that states you’re the sole owner of the idea, so they can’t turn around and make a claim since they helped create it. Second, use non-disclosure and non-compete forms with contractors you hire to help you with the product and your home business, so they can’t share your idea or start their own business with your idea.