Intellectual Property and Your Business

How your company can protect its intellectual property rights

When you think about your business’s core assets, how often do you think about intellectual property? Your intellectual property helps set your business apart from your competition, and it’s eligible for legal protections. But first, what do we mean by “intellectual property”?

Types of Intellectual Property

There are three main types of intellectual properties that could impact your business: copyrights, trademarks, and patents.


A copyright is a type of federal protection for creative works, such as text, images, graphic design, sculpture, and other expressions of ideas so that they cannot be reproduced, displayed, or distributed without permission from the copyright owner. The ideas themselves are not protected—just the expression of those ideas.

The owner of a copyright could be a person, a business, another organization, or any combination of the above.

Official registration of a copyright is not required by law, though there are benefits to doing so. Copyrights are filed with the United States Copyright Office.


A trademark is used to indicate the origins of a product or service. It is not the word or image itself that is protected, but rather the connection of that word or image to a specific product, brand, or entity. For example, Coca-Cola is a trademark. I am allowed to reproduce the words in the context of the article you’re reading now, but I would not be allowed to put those words on a product of mine, since I would be misrepresenting the origins of that product.

Official trademark registration is not required by law in order to claim some rights to the trademark. However, an unregistered trademark must use either the “TM” or “SM” (for service mark) symbol to claim these rights; the “R” symbol is only to be used on trademarks that have been officially registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office.


Also registered with the USPTO, patents consist of three distinct types: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. Utility patents are perhaps the most commonly known type: they protect things like inventions and new processes. In addition to the utility patent, a design patent may protect an ornamental design, and a plant patent may protect a newly discovered or engineered plant.

Which type of intellectual property protection is right for my business?

Copyrights, trademarks, and patents vary in their scope and type of protection. Let’s look at a few common intellectual property assets relevant to businesses and how to go about protecting them from unauthorized use.

Company Logo

A company logo is used to signify its connection to its products and services. Therefore, many logos can be protected as a trademark, as they act as a type of corporate identification or brand.

A company logo may be protected by a copyright as well, if it has a significant amount of original authorship—that is, if it is not simply a words or letters, neither of which are eligible for copyright protection.

Note: It is important to keep in mind that a copyright protects unauthorized reproduction or use of the image, while a trademark protects the use of the image commercially in connection with a product or service.

Work for your customers

Some businesses require submitting proposals or bids to customers and clients. In those cases, who owns the content of those proposals? Are you, the business owner, retaining ownership, or are you passing the rights to the ideas within the proposal on to your potential customer? If your proposal is not selected, would you want that potential client to be able to use your novel content, contained within your proposal, for their own business interests?

This type of content may be eligible for copyright protection, but when one party does work at the request of another party, it’s important to clarify from the beginning which of the parties will be the legal owner of the work.

Website and other promotional content

If your business creates all of its own copy, or text, then the business owns the copyright to these materials automatically. But what if your company hires an outside contractor to create copy for the website? Who owns the copy then?

When an employee creates something copyrightable, it is the company (or employer) that owns the copyright. But with an independent contractor, depending on the specific of the situation, it is typically the contractor, not the company that hired him/her, who is the legal copyright owner. A Work For Hire Agreement signed before the work has begun will clarify that the company is to own the resulting work; a Copyright Assignment Form will transfer the ownership from the artist to the company after the fact, if the Work For Hire was not in place at the beginning.


Photography can frequently cause confusion when it comes to intellectual property rights. If you, as a business owner, hire a photographer to take promotional pictures for your business, are you making sure that you hold the rights to those photographs? Or are you only paying the photographer for using the photographs?

A simple Copyright Assignment Form can transfer 100% of the copyright from the photographer, who is creating the work, to you and your business so that you may use the photography free and clear long into the future.

Or, the photographer might decide to grant you a Copyright License Agreement for the photograph, allowing you to use an image on your website, for example, but not on any print material. These licenses usually cost money—but typically less money than a full copyright transfer.