What Are Patents and Trademarks?

Patents, typically utility patents, and trademarks both protect types of intellectual property. A patent protects the products, while trademarks protect the brand and images of that product.

What is Trademark Protection?

A trademark is often used by a business to protect a specific word, design, or symbol that is tied to the company. Most companies trademark their brand names, products, and logos to prevent copycats or confusion. For example, the Nike swoosh is trademarked to make sure of the quality of the product that it's printed on, and the logo can't be used without approval from Nike itself.

Most companies – like Nike – have written rules for how trademarks can be used (like its size and colors) and what products they can be used with. If those rules aren't followed, the trademark owner can go to court or revoke a company's right to use the trademark.

Most trademarks are visual symbols, according to Key Differences . However, trademarks can also apply to sounds and other media if the business can prove that it's a critical part of its brand. For example, a company that owns a specific phrase, (like, "you've been punked") has to prove that the phrase is tied to its brand, and people immediately think of the brand when they hear it.

What is Patent Protection?

If trademarks protect the brands and images of a company, then patents protect the products themselves. By definition, a patent is granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and excludes others from making or selling an invention as their own. A patent proves that the creation was an inventor's idea.

Patents don't just apply to the finished products, they also apply to processes. For example, a company might patent a machine that makes creating products easier, or patent a process that improves the quality of the finished product.

In fact, the courts have ruled that anything can be patented as long as the owner proves that it should be protected. This includes everything from business processes to software.

Why are Patent and Trademark Protections Important?

Trademarks and patents prove ownership of thoughts and ideas. The legal term for these ideas is "intellectual property." This term refers to ideas that are considered to be valuable. Examples might include products that can be sold to millions of customers or brand names that could convince potential customers to buy the product. Without the proper protection, someone else can make money off of these designs.

Nikita Bhatia at YourStory explains how you can spot trademark symbols. Registered trademarks can be identified by the "®" symbol. They must be renewed every 10 years and can be valid for an unlimited amount of time. It's rare for a court to remove a trademark from a company unless it is out of business or no longer uses it.

While patents don't have specific symbols, they are still protected by the paperwork filed at the United States Patent Office. Patents are typically valid for 20 years, though there are short-term patents for specific products or processes.

What are the Benefits of Applying for Patent Protection?

Patents prevent competitors from stealing your process or ideas and using them as their own. Your company can apply for a patent for a new product, a new inventive step, or an industrial application. In the years that your company owns that patent over any other brand, you can save money by producing a more efficient product.

The patent process is considered to be one of the hardest of all intellectual property application processes. If you apply for patent protection for your product or process, you can expect:

  • A multi-year process to prove that you came up with this idea.
  • Significant costs in application fees.
  • Several rounds of questions from the Patent Office.

The perfect example of patent protection is face-wash wipes. A company can patent the actual face cream it sprays on the wipes, the wipes themselves, and the packaging that the wipes come in. It can also patent the assembly process to put all three together. The multiple steps and elements show why the patent process is so long.

While this process is challenging, it is often worth it for companies that feel like they have "million dollar ideas" that they don't want other brands to steal.

What are the Benefits of Applying for Trademark Protection?

Trademark protection only applies to the actual symbols a company uses, but these are more important than you might think. One example of trademark use is McDonald's. The company's trademark covers the branding, including the name, the Golden Arches, and characters like Ronald McDonald. It does not cover the actual hamburger. This means anyone can make hamburgers – and can even make hamburgers that look and taste just like McDonald's – but cannot sell them as McDonald's hamburgers.

While trademarks might seem like they protect business owners, they actually protect consumers, too. A trademark lets customers know where the product comes from. Using the McDonald's example again, someone who buys a hamburger with the trademark Golden Arches knows that the burger can be trusted and is prepared according to the company's standards. If anyone could use the McDonald's logo, then customers couldn't trust any hamburger that they ate under the brand.

However, a trademark is only as strong as the people who defend it. So if you own a trademark, you must stay on guard to protect it. This may mean sending a "cease and desist" letter if you find someone using your brand, and then taking them to court if they don't stop. This will prevent people from stealing your brand to make money.

If your company introduces a new product, logo, process, or brand, you can confidentially post to make sure your patent or trademark is protected and receive free custom quotes from the top 5% of lawyers on UpCounsel. Obtaining the correct protections means you can make sure your designs, processes, or products aren't stolen, and your profits aren't affected.