You'll find a useful introduction to patents, trademarks and copyright at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Inventor Resources page.
A patent is a legal document giving its owner a limited monopoly on new and useful technology. A patent describes the new technology in detail so that others can build on that knowledge. In return the patent owner may exclude others from making, selling or using your invention for a certain period of time. There are three kinds of patents. Utility patents protect inventions, design patents protect the appearance of a product, and plant patents protect new varieties of plants.
Before you can start making money from your invention, you must find out if someone else has already patented it, because they would have the right to take legal action against you. In order to protect yourself, you must make sure your idea is unique by looking at all patents similar to it.
You’ll search the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's (USPTO) Full Text Patent Database on the Internet. This database includes all patents issued since 1790. However, you must perform two searches. You’ll start by searching for patents issued from 1976-present. It’s easier, and will give you the information you need to search the 1790-1975 date range.
Internet Sites about Patents:
A trademark is a distinctive word, phrase, or symbol that identifies the source of a product and distinguishes one company's product from another. A service mark is essentially the same but it identifies a service. You aren't required to register a trademark, but there are legal advantages to doing so, including the exclusive right to use the mark on or in connection with your goods or services.
A trademark search will identify pre-existing marks that may cause confusion with the mark you want to use. Trademarks are given a classification - a category of goods or services the mark will be used for. Examples are Class 7 (Machinery) and Class38 (Telecommunications services). It is difficult to find a unique trademark not in use, but as long as two similar marks aren't in the same classification you may be able to use yours.
You'll search for trademarks using the USPTO Trademark database on the Internet. Go to the USPTO Trademark Home Page, then click on "Search Trademarks". The database covers marks from 1984 - present, for the most part. The database contains only federally registered trademarks. No state, foreign, 'common-law', inactive or expired trademarks are included.
Finding the Image of a Trademark:
Only about 25% of trademarks have images associated with them. Most of the time words alone are trademarked. If there is an image, it appears at the top of the page describing each trademark. (The addition of the images takes some time - there is a few-months delay.)
Companies frequently use their trade names as trademarks or service marks for their products and services. Trade names may be registered on the state or local level. You can search for trade names in business directories such as the Thomas Register, Reference USA (a nationwide business directory), Internet telephone book databases, and state incorporation records.
Search the library catalog using the following search terms to find the most current print materials in the library's collection: Trademarks
Internet Sites about Trademarks:
A copyright protects the writings of an author against copying. Literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works are protected by the copyright law, which in some instances also protects performing and recording rights. The copyright protects the form of expression rather than the subject matter. All works created on or after January 1, 1978 are copyrighted for the life of the author plus 70 years.
A work doesn’t have to be published to be copyrighted. Under present law, copyright is secured automatically when the work is recorded for the first time (e.g. on paper or videotape). However, to obtain the most legal protection, register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Copyright Registration and Forms:
To figure out what forms and process you need to register a copyright, visit the Copyright web site, and click on "How to Register a Work". The fee is $45 to register a copyright.
Contacting the Copyright Office:
Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave. SE, Washington DC 20559-6000
Public Information Office: (202) 707-3000 (Mon-Fri, 8:30am to 5pm, Eastern Time)
Books About Copyright: