Forms of protection and which one may be right for your idea
So, you had this great idea, and the next thing that popped into your mind was, “Okay, what do I do with this idea? Who do I talk to about it? I don’t know who I can trust. Can I talk to my friends about this? Can I talk to my family about this? Can I go to a company about this?”
No, don’t go to a company about it first. But yeah, that’s probably what you were thinking—”What now?” And you may have started searching the internet, looking for information about ideas and inventions and patents, and through that research, you ended up on this website—because you realize that patenting the idea might be an important step for you. Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. In this series, we’ll help you figure that out.
One thing many of our clients have in common is that they never intended to become inventors. They just came up with an idea and found themselves in a position where they needed to learn what they needed to do in order to pursue that idea—and probably even figure out whether they should be pursuing the idea at all. This series addresses the most common questions you may have about the patent process, and what you can do next.
Now that you have an idea, the next question is, what’s the appropriate way to go about protecting your particular idea? Under the law, there are different ways of protecting different types of ideas. You’ve probably heard of some of them—things like patents, trademarks, and copyrights. All of those fit within an area of the law known as “intellectual property law.” That’s the field of law that deals with the protection of ideas, the ownership of ideas. So what we need to figure out is, what’s the right way for you to own the idea that you’ve come up with?
The first form of protection we should talk about is copyright law. And we’ll talk about it quickly because copyright probably doesn’t apply to your situation, but you should understand why. You’ve probably heard people say, “Hey, that’s a great idea! You should copyright it!” So we’ll explain why that probably doesn’t apply to your situation.
Copyright does not protect ideas. Copyright protects artistic expression. Copyright protects things like books, movies, plays, poetry, and songs—and even in those things, it doesn’t protect the underlying idea. So if you have an idea for a book, the idea itself is not protected with a copyright. But the words you write for the book might be protected. So, even with the right subject matter—the book, a copyright doesn’t protect the idea—just the way you wrote that particular book.
The second form of protection we’re going to talk about is trademark. Trademark law helps consumers not to be confused about where their product is coming from. So, when you go into a store to buy a can of Coca-Cola®, and you see a can that’s labeled “Coca-Cola,” you can count on the fact that it’s “The Real Thing®,” as they put it, because trademark law protects your expectation as a consumer that a product labeled “Coca-Cola” is Coca-Cola®.
Trademark law protects anything that a company might use to identify their product or service in the marketplace. It could be the name “Coca-Cola,” it could be the writing style on the can, it could be the red and white color scheme on the can, or that wavy line, or even the slogan, “The Real Thing®.” Those are all trademarks of Coca-Cola because those are all things that, if they were all put on a competitor’s product, a consumer might be confused into thinking that the competitors product was Coca-Cola®—or somehow affiliated with them.
The key thing for you to understand right now about trademark law is that it might apply to you if the thing that’s most important about what you have is the name of it—the name you come up with, the slogan, or other aspects that are distinct from the product idea itself. Or it might be something that you need to consider later on, when you’re about to launch your product.
What you should know for now is that, if what you have in mind is the idea for a product, a service, or something like a smart phone app, that you believe is distinct from other things that already exist, patent law is probably the area of law that pertains to protecting your idea. Patents protect new and useful inventions that fit certain specific criteria that the patent office looks for when deciding whether to grant a patent. We’ll discuss these criteria in greater detail in this series.
Part 2 of this series discusses the two most important criteria for determining whether you can patent what you have.
Coca-Cola® is a registered trademark of The Coca-Cola Company.
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