How to protect an idea or invention falls into one of three categories that provide legal protection. The categories are trademarks, patents, and copyrights. 

Overview of Trademark Information

A trademark applies to symbols, words, or names that identify and distinguish products, goods, or services from one business or manufacturer to another. 

With trademarks, the user/creator of the mark is not required to register it for protection. Using a mark gives an individual the rights to it, but to have more benefits, the mark should be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. 

With registration, the mark becomes public letting others know the mark is owned and not to be used by anyone else. 

When the application for a trademark is filled out and submitted, the law presumes the mark belongs to the applicant and grants the exclusive right to use it. 

The registered mark can be used on goods or services specified in the original application, which means others are not allowed to use a mark that is similar and causes confusion. 

Applying to register a trademark is more time-consuming and complex than applying for a copyright. To make sure the application is completed accurately, it is recommended that the application is prepared by someone experienced in the field of trademark law. 

Be prepared for a significant wait time for the application to be approved. Time-wise, it can take months or years for approval. Once approved, a trademark includes a renewable 10-year term of validity.

Overview of Patent Information

A patent provides protection to an inventor for his inventions, which can include chemicals, plants, and machines. An invention or discovery of something new or useful or an invention that improves a process is eligible for a patent from the United States Patent and Trademark Office website. 

Patents must be applied for to be protected. It is a slow process that can take as long as two years or longer, and the cost can be significant. Although the wait time for patent approval may be lengthy, once the application for a patent is filed protection is attached to the invention. 

There are two options for a patent - utility or design. An inventor can apply for one or both patents, which is recommended when applicable. 

With a utility invention, inventors have the option of an alternate protection process known as a Provisional Patent. The application has fewer requirements, is easy to file, and provides the inventor with a priority filing date and the status of "patent pending" for 12 months. 

During those months, an inventor has the opportunity to test the item, seek funding, and discuss the invention with potential investors before committing more time and money toward getting the patent. The patent lasts for only 12 months during which time a non-provisional application must be completed to complete the patent filing process; extensions are not granted. 

An approved patent lasts for 20 years during which time your invention cannot be made, used, or sold in the United States nor can it be imported to another country. 

Overview of Copyright Information

A copyright covers the tangible works of literature, music, and art. This would include items such as:

  • Photographs.
  • Lyrics.
  • Books.
  • Paintings.

The copyright protection for these items is attached once the original piece of work is in an actual tangible form. Examples of tangible forms include writing musical notes on a piece of paper or recording dance steps on a recording device. Once the item is in a tangible form, the sole right to produce and reproduce the work belongs to the person who created the original work. 

There is no requirement to register a creation, but if the situation arises where a lawsuit for infringement of the work is necessary, the original owner of the work will need a federally registered copyright

Registration has several benefits:

  • A registration provides a public record of the copyright.
  • A copyright varies in its duration according to when it was created and registered. The normal timeframe is for the duration of the creator's life plus 70 years. 
  • The filing fee is currently $45 and worth the investment in having a registered copyright to protect your creation against potential infringement. 

If you need help with how to protect an idea or invention, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.