In the online world, many people live by the rule: Content is KING. Providing your readers, subscribers, and new potential clients with tons of value via your website, social media, and other content platforms, is a huge piece of starting your business. As you see your business gain traction, you may start to wonder whether you should consider protecting this content legally. If you do decide to protect it, HOW do you go about doing this??
There are two primary legal methods of protecting your content: Copyright and Trademark (we will save patents for another day for all you inventors!)
A copyright is designed to protect original, tangible, content – “original” meaning it originated with you, and “tangible” meaning it is written down or somehow fixed, not just as an idea. In the online space, this could include a blog post, email newsletter, content from an online course, or e-book, book, article, etc. If you are creating some sort of original work that you expect will reach the masses, and will be extremely troublesome to your business should someone attempt to lift part or all of the work (such as a book, course, etc.) registering the work with the US Copyright Office could be something to consider. While registration is not technically required for your work to receive some protection, it IS required before you are able to file any action claiming copyright infringement, and provides the best timestamp in terms of establishing when your content was created, should you ever get into any sort of dispute with another over the original creation of a piece of work.
By contrast, a trademark is designed to protect a logo, tagline, or company name to allow for brand recognition and prevent consumer confusion. Examples of well-known trademarks could include the Nike “swoosh” symbol, or the tagline “I’m Lovin’ It” by McDonald’s. If you see (or hear) either of those, you automatically know what brand that item belongs to, based on the logo or tagline. In the online world, many consider trademarking logos, slogans, or names of signature online courses – anything a customer base could use to recognize your brand, company, or product.
If you are thinking about trademarking something in connection with your brand, keep in mind, the registration process can be pricey, and can take up to a year to complete, from the time your application is submitted, to the time you receive your registration. In between this time, the US Patent and Trademark Office may reach out to you (or your attorney) with requests for additional information, responses to inquiries, etc. which must all be timely addressed! Because the process is not as quick as one might think, many times entrepreneurs will wait until they are sure of a certain course name, logo, or tagline, that they either are starting to obtain brand recognition from, or that they know will be their signature “thing” that people will know them for.
In addition to being weary of others copying or using your original work, it is also important to make sure we aren’t copying anyone else’s; whether intentionally or unintentionally! So, how do you know if you are infringing on someone else’s trademark? While you could cross your fingers and wait to see if an angry letter shows up in the mail (I do not recommend that option!), you can also do a preemptive search to ensure your potential course or company name is not already in use. If you are within the United States, one way to determine this is to check the US Patent and Trademark Office public registry to see if anyone else is already using the same name, or a very similar name, to the one you are wanting to use.
By using the USPTO’s “TESS” (Trademark Electronic Search System) website, you can easily enter in your potential company/course names/taglines to assess whether anything like it already exists. If so, it’s probably your best bet to cross it off the list and think of something else. If not – you are one step closer to being in the clear! It is a good idea to complete this step before you’ve dedicated time and resources to a certain brand name, logo, etc. in case you do discover someone is already using it.
To sum it up: Copyrights are used to protect original, fixed, expressions (think blog posts, books, course content) while trademarks are used to protect brand recognition and prevent consumer confusion as to the source of the product or service (think logos, slogans, taglines, company names). Both can be very useful and necessary pieces of protection for your intellectual property as you grow and scale your business!
Disclaimer: This post is intended purely as legal information, and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship.