So you want to trademark your business idea…?

With places like the Innovation Hub proliferating in Gainesville, it’s clear that the home of the Gators is also a city where business ideas abound. With all the creative concepts flowing, however, the question of how to officially trademark a business idea and/or brand might be something on the minds of prospective business owners looking to turn their ideas into reality.

Differences between trademark, patent and copyrights

First, it’s important to distinguish the three forms of intellectual properties: trademark, patent and copyright.

According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s website, a trademark is defined as a word, phrase, symbol or design that identifies the source of the goods of one party from other parties. In other words, Nike has a trademark for their noteworthy “Swoosh” logo emblazoned on their merchandise.

A patent gives ownership rights to an inventor for his or her invention once it’s when it’s granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, in exchange for public disclosure of the invention, according to the website. These materials can include machines, manufactured articles or even chemical compositions, according to the USPTO.

Finally, a copyright protects creative and artistic work, like poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software and architecture, according to the site. Protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. Works created anonymously, pseudonymously and for hire, are protected for 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter, according to the site.

What the process looks like

Christopher Ramsey, a registered patent attorney with Gainesville’s GrayRobinson Law Firm, said trademarking a business idea should begin with a nationwide search through an official database on the USPTO website. If a brand is registered with the trademark office, it’ll show up in the results.

To be granted a federal registration from the U.S. government, an official application has to filled out and sent to the office, he said. A trademark examiner will then go through it and search through the database of pre-existing applications and registrations to decide whether what the person is trying to register is confusingly similar to somebody else’s, he said.

If it is, the office will send a letter with that feedback. The interested party then has a chance to respond.

One of the more common objections the office makes, Ramsey said, happen if the chosen name the person is trying to trademark is descriptive of the goods or services that he or she is offering.

“You can’t register the brand ‘Computer’ if you’re going to sell computers,” he said. “Your company doesn’t get a monopoly over the term that other folks in the industry also have to use to describe their products.”

Along with making sure the chosen name is non-descriptive, he said solid brands are distinctive enough to where consumers can look at different products and know which came from which company.

It typically takes about three months from the time the application is filed to when the examiner will take a look at it. The entire process of being granted a trademark will take about a year, but it could be faster depending on the situation.

Ramsey noted that companies have trademark rights even if they don’t have trademark registrations, just based on their use of those trademarks or brand names. But the trademark from the federal office is important to have if they plan to sell their goods or services across state lines or in interstate commerce, he said.

“If Coca-Cola never registered with the federal government to trademark Coca-Cola, the company would still have rights to the brand name,” he said. “In other words, the company could still go after people who were selling a beverage called Coca-Cola regardless of whether they ever registered it.”

But the trademark prevents anybody within the U.S. from using a similar mark in a way that would confuse consumers, which is an advantage.  

Why it’s important

It is important for startups in places like Gainesville to build up a portfolio of intellectual property because it provides them with assets as well as exclusivity in the market.

“Trademark registration is another asset that a startup company will own,” Ramsey said. “And in a lot of cases, startup companies don’t have a whole lot of stuff. They might not have a building; they might not have a ton of product or inventory….It’s important to build up a portfolio of intellectual property so that your company has assets to sell when it comes time to do that.”

He said some of his work at GrayRobinson includes helping people choose the name of a potential business, guiding them through the process of searching the nationwide database, consulting the legal risks and handling the correspondence with the trademark office.  

“It’s hard to prevent competition just based on the generic idea of what you’re going to do,” said Ramsey. “It has to fall into one of the categories of intellectual property protection that give people legal remedy against people who will come along and knock them off.”  

By Kristina Orrego

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