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Trademark, copyright, or registered: The differences you need to know


Learn the difference behind the three main IP registration symbols.


If your head starts to spin trying to figure out the difference between the “trademark,” “copyright,” and “registered” symbols you see everywhere, you’re not alone. When it comes to intellectual property, the details can get confusing quickly.


First off: What is intellectual property? Put simply, it is what it sounds like. IP is something that has value, but isn’t necessarily a physical object. It’s an intangible creation stemming from your own brainpower: designs, logos, literary works, slogans, etc.


IP can include a myriad of different things. But what all IP has in common is that it needs to be protected. That’s where all those symbols come in: The ™ for a trademark, the © for copyright, or the ® for registered. And while all those different IP protections work with the same purpose – to keep others from stealing your ideas – they do have subtle differences.


If you see the ® symbol, it means that that graphic, phrase, name, or other advertising symbol has been officially registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This level of protection also makes sure that others won’t be able to trademark their own symbols or phrases that are too similar to yours. Once a company’s materials are officially registered with the USPTO, that company can really start to set itself apart from competitors, because they’re able to use those materials in advertising with free will. A registered piece of intellectual property also gives a company more legal standing to sue anyone who uses something too similar.


If a company has not yet been accepted by the USPTO, or it hasn’t even filed an application yet, that’s where the ™ comes in. Marking a graphic, design, or phrase with a ™ means that the organization is claiming that piece as their own, even though there’s no official documentation with the USPTO. This is more a signifier that the IP is being taken seriously as it doesn’t provide any additional legal protection that Common Law rights already allow.


As for the © symbol, this one is mostly for works of art, like music, literature, or visual art. This kind of work is automatically granted a copyright, even without going through a registration process, and the creator is protected for up to 70 years after their death. When something has t the © symbol, that means that that author or creator has the exclusive right to profit from whatever the intellectual property is (architectural designs, a book, a painting, etc). Although copyrights are automatically given, creators should still register them with the U.S. Copyright Office to enjoy full legal protection.

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