I was taking a class a while back when the teacher said something truly terrifying. “Some of this material isn’t even copyrighted,” she announced, “so anyone in this class is welcome to put their own name on it.” Um. That could be a problem.
I called her up and thanked her for her generosity. Then, I let her know that failure to copyright her work left her vulnerable to someone, possibly even a student, copyrighting it for themselves and charging HER for royalties on her own work! Believe it or not, folks, this happens.
You have rights to your work. That’s one of the cornerstones of the American Dream – that anyone can write a book on their blackberry (50 shades of Grey) or build a machine in their garage (Apple) and make billions.
If you want a piece of that American Dream, it’s worth taking a few extra steps to prove ownership of your work. Today, we’re talking about the four ways to protect your brainchild – Copyrights, Trademarks, Servicemarks, and Patents.
[DISCLAIMER – this post is not intended to provide legal advice, the content written here will not hold up in a court of law. The judge will laugh in your face and then throw you out. If you are interested in protecting your intellectual property, talk to a lawyer. Got it? Good. Onward!]
There’s a myth that you can legally copyright your work by sealing it in an envelope and mailing it to yourself. Sorry, this is bad information that could cost you your novel. The only way to copyright something legally is to register it.
Copyrights are for written or recorded material – manuscripts, screenplays, music, film, photography, etc. If you aren’t sure what qualifies as copyright-able material, consult an attorney.
Price: $35 – $55
Where to apply: www.copyright.gov
TRADEMARKS AND SERVICEMARKS
Trademarks and Servicemarks protect your brand for quality control purposes so that a competitor can’t pose as you. The difference between trademarks and servicemarks is in the nature of the goods.
Trademarks are for tangible goods, like jewelry. Imagine you sell Tagua jewelry under the name “African Star,” and you build your brand on a reputation for quality products that raise money to protect endangered elephants. Then, at your next craft fair, the booth across the aisle from you is selling cheap plastic jewelry with no dedication to the preservation of pachyderms. Not a problem, right? Until you notice that they are using the same name and logo that you are! Now it’s a problem. If you have trademarked your brand name and logo, you can legally take them down. But if you haven’t, there’s nothing you can do.
Servicemarks are for intangible goods, or “services.” If you are a private yoga instructor, for instance, and your business is called “Serenity Yoga.” You’ve worked hard for a good BBB rating and highest Yelp! reviews. People are looking for YOU, not just for yoga in general, but actually searching for your specific service. Protecting the name of your service will ensure that someone else can’t offer private yoga sessions under your brand to intentionally skim some of your customers off the top.
Price: $225 – $400
Where to apply: www.uspto.gov
Don’t be discouraged if you Google your ideal domain name and it’s already taken. Trademarks, Servicemarks and Patents are limited to their specific class of goods. So, if someone wanted to take out a Trademark for “African Star” vacation packages, that would be permissible because it’s hard to confuse jewelry with vacations. (Hard, but not impossible. People are amazing.)
A Patent is the big dog of intellectual property protection. Sure, Tesla doesn’t need them, but unless you can afford to hand over a majority of your market share then Elon Musk is probably not the model you want to follow. I mean, dude doesn’t even need business cards, he can just say “I’m Elon Musk” and write his number on a napkin.
Patents are a bigger deal because you’re not just putting your name on the products that you sell, you’re saying “this thing exists because of me, and no one else can make them.” Let’s say you invent a new self-defense weapon that is cheaper, safer and more effective than a taser. Everyone will want this thing, and you are the only one who has it because you invented it. If you patent your invention, you have the choice of either manufacturing and selling the product yourself, or selling the patent and moving on to your next invention.
Where to apply: www.uspto.gov
The application process isn’t all that complicated, but if you stand to loose a lot then it’s worth working with an attorney to secure your intellectual property rights. The real benefit of working with an attorney isn’t in the applying, it’s in the defending. Lucrative business naturally attracts unscrupulous people who don’t care about your legal rights, and shutting them down is a lot less painful when you have had legal oversight from day one.
Got questions? Don’t ask me, ask one of the amazing attorneys we have in the MHM community!
Emma Fulenwider is our MHM team writer, covering the many aspects of Mom-preneur life. A mother of two and memoir writer by trade, she runs Cedar Pen Life Stories from her home in Sacramento.