While copyright and trademark both protect your intellectual property, they have specific applications.
According to the US Copyright Office FAQ, copyright “protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.”
Copyright and Intellectual Property Rights
You can place a “©” symbol (Option Key + G) on your website and in printed material (both forms of publishing your ideas) without registering your copyright or submitting any applications. This serves as a notice to all that the original content contained therein (ideas, artwork, writing) is your intellectual property: “Copyright in a work protected under this title vests initially in the author or authors of the work. The authors of a joint work are coowners of copyright in the work.”
Work for Hire
Note that works made for hire confer these rights to the Employer – not the artist or designer – unless your contract specifies otherwise. Meaning, if you created a logo for a company while you were employed by that company, the logo copyright belongs to the company. As an employee, your “work for hire” grants no intellectual ownership to you, the employee-designer.
You can register a Copyright for your original work (visual, performance, literary or sound recordings) through the US Copyright office here.
Creative Commons Licenses
You may also be familiar with “Creative Commons/Attribution” licenses – founded in the principal of an open web these types of “CC” marks mean that you are free to use, distribute and sometimes modify other people’s works. You’ll find this in use on Wikipedia and some other sites like Flickr. If you plan to use someone else’s work make sure that you understand and respect the rights that they have defined. Images found on the web in image searches are not always “free” – make sure you check the source website before you use someone else’s work. For information about Creative Commons, visit their website.
Trademarks and Brand Names
While copyright covers expressions of ideas, trademark covers logos and brand names. The US Patent and Trademark Office says that “A trademark includes any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used, in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods of one manufacturer or seller from goods manufactured or sold by others, and to indicate the source of the goods. In short, a trademark is a brand name.”
Starting a new company? You might want to search for your desired name in Google as well as the US Patent Office.
When starting a new company, its a good idea to search existing registered trademarks to make sure that your “Great Business Idea” isn’t going to infringe on any other brand identities (the same name or graphic can occur but it has to be in a different industry or state). You can use a trademark symbol (“TM”) on your brand, company name and/or graphic logo without registering your trademark. But, if you want to really protect your brand identity from theft or infringement you will need to register your trademark with the U.S. Patents Office. This can cost you money and time so consider whether this is necessary for your business.
When in doubt, consult with your lawyer. For information on trademarks and copyright visit the United States Patent and Trademark Office.