Does Your Small Business Need a Trademark or Copyright?

One of the most important things a small business owner can do is protect its intellectual property. Registering a trademark or copyright allows businesses to protect their IP and receive exclusive rights to its use.

Are trademarks and copyrights interchangeable? No. Each protection helps protect a different form of IP. Let’s take a look at what each term means, the types of intellectual property it protects, and what to know before filing to register a trademark or copyright.

Mini brand and trademark


What is a trademark?

Every business has certain marks, like a business name or company logo, that are associated with its brand.

Filing for federal trademark registration helps protects media that is unique to the business and its visibility with audiences. It gives the owner exclusive rights to the mark. Without a formal trademark registration, your unique mark may be at risk of plagiarism by competing businesses and other outside sources.

Are trademarks and DBAs the same?

There is another term that is also occasionally confused with trademarks and that is a doing business as name (DBA).

A doing business as name is the official and public registration of a name under which you do business. Some states also refer to a DBA as an assumed name or fictitious name.

However, a DBA is not the same as a trademark. A DBA filing will not provide exclusive rights to the use of a business name. Filing for a DBA means that the business name can only be claimed at the state level. What happens, for example, if you file for a DBA in California and a business in Oregon wants to use the same DBA? The Oregon business would be able to file for the same DBA as the California business so long as no other Oregon businesses are using that DBA. This differs radically from a federally registered trademark which grants exclusivity to its owner.

While we’re on the topic of DBAs, what else can this filing do for startups? Businesses that file for a DBA may conduct business or accept money under a name that differs from the business owner’s legal name. You can also use a DBA to open a business bank account and publicly market and advertise your small business.

What does a trademark protect?

Quite a few pieces of original media may receive a trademark! Some of these include, but are not limited to, business names, phrases, taglines, symbols, logos, designs, brand mascots, and devices. Even specific words, colors, or scents may receive trademark registration.

How do I file for trademark protection?

If you are ready to register a trademark, it’s a good idea to conduct a trademark search first. You can do this with the help of a third-party filing service or by searching the trademark database at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Conducting a search prior to registration is important for a few reasons. This allows business owners to see if the mark has already been registered or is pending registration. If it is already registered, then you will need to determine a new trademark that is not already in use. However, if the mark is available it is free for registration. Fill out a trademark application and pay a filing fee with your local Secretary of State to reserve the mark for your business.

photo credit: takomabibelot / Flickr


What is a copyright?

A copyright is a form of intellectual property protection. Copyrights help protect original works of authorship. These include published and unpublished works that are considered to be the work of its author.

Who is the author? Copyrights define an author as the creator of this original work. Technically, authors have a copyright from the moment they create this work. This makes it all the more critical that these property rights receive the proper protection by filing for a copyright.

What does a copyright protect?

There is a lengthy list of works that are eligible for copyright registration. Some may include, but are not limited to, the following materials.

  • Literary works.
  • Performing arts.
  • Visual arts.
  • Motion pictures.
  • Photographs.
  • Digital content.
  • Architectural works.

How do I file for copyright protection?

Similar to that of a trademark, it is encouraged that authors filing for a copyright first conduct a basic search.

You may conduct this search through a third-party filing service or through the United States Copyright Office. The United States Copyright Office has a Public Catalog you may search through to determine if your copyright registration is available. Search by name, keyword, registration number, document number, or command keyword to determine if your works of authorship may receive a copyright filing.

If the works have not already been registered or are pending registration, fill out a copyright filing application and pay a small fee. Remember to submit a copy of the work you wish to register along with your application.

What happens when your copyright has been approved for registration? You will have the peace of mind in knowing the copyright will literally exist with you for your entire life! Registered copyrights stay registered at the federal level with their creator throughout their life and continue to exist for an additional 70 years after the creator has passed on.

Filing for a trademark and copyright

Now that you have an understanding of trademarks and copyrights and the roles each performs within your business, you may file for registration accordingly.