Group of coworkers in a meeting.
The trademark acquisition process has several steps, including the initial application, review, and a 30-day period during which objections can be raised. — Getty Images/ Compassionate Eye Foundation/David Oxberry

No inventor or entrepreneur wants to see their idea or invention stolen or copied. However, it could happen after pitching a company, sharing a detailed business plan, or even chatting about your invention in your social circle. Although you can establish limited rights once you use a logo, symbol, slogan, or unique design, these rights only apply regionally rather than nationally.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) helps you protect your inventions and ideas. It offers guidance and online tools for applying for a patent, trademark, or copyright. But all services come at a sometimes steep cost. Examine different ways to keep your intellectual property (IP) safe.

Trademark basics

A trademark is a design, word, phrase, or any other combination that differentiates your good or service from others. USPTO said that if you develop a trademark related to your invention, “You become a trademark owner as soon as you start using your trademark with your goods or services.” You can register your trademark at the federal and state levels for additional protection. If your trademark isn’t in use yet, you can file an application signaling your “intent to do so within the next three to four years.”

Registering for a trademark requires you to identify the scope of use, defined as products (trademark) or services (service mark). And it doesn’t stop others from using a certain phrase or word. Instead, “You can legally prevent others from using the same or a similar trademark for related goods or services without your permission.” Once you pay fees and file applications, the process can take 12 to 18 months.

Acquiring a trademark involves several steps, including:

  • The application is reviewed to check that it satisfies legal requirements.
  • If approved, it’s published in USPTO’s Trademark Official Gazette (TMOG).
  • Anyone who objects to your trademark must do so within 30 days of publication.
  • If there’s an objection or legal issue, USPTO sends a letter.
  • You must respond within a set time frame.
  • Your application goes through review and publication again.

[Read more: How to Seek Funding for Inventions]

You become a trademark owner as soon as you start using your trademark with your goods or services.

United States Patent and Trademark Office

Decide what type of intellectual property protection you need

A trademark doesn’t safeguard your invention’s physical or digital makeup. According to UpCounsel, “If you're trying to protect a unique mark that identifies goods from your company, you need to apply for a trademark. If you want to protect a product or the ornamental design of a product, apply for a patent.” USPTO offers an IP comparison chart showing key differences between a trademark, patent, or copyright. Get the right protections by knowing what type of intellectual property you have.

Use USPTO’s IP identifier to determine if you need:

  • Trademarks.
  • Design patents.
  • Copyrights.
  • Utility patents.
  • Trade secret protections.
  • Plant patents.

Alternative methods for protecting your invention

If you want to share your prototype but worry about IP theft, other options can help protect your idea. However, these approaches lack the full protection of the USPTO. Typically, inventors go these routes when they lack funds to pay for a patent or are otherwise unable to get one. When in doubt, check with a lawyer to ensure you don’t inadvertently disclose trade secrets or enough detail for a company or individual to file a patent for your invention.

Alternatives to trademarks and patents include:

  • Provisional patent application (PPA): A PPA costs less than a patent, and the application is easier to complete. It lets you use the phrase “patent pending” when describing your invention. A PPA lasts for 12 months.
  • Non-disclosure agreement (NDA): Request that individuals sign a confidentiality contract before you pitch your invention. This allows you to sue them if they use your invention without permission.
  • Implied confidential relationship: Attorney Richard Stim wrote on Nolo that it’s possible to establish a confidential relationship “without a signed agreement.” But it’s harder to prove, and certain factors must exist.
  • Unregistered symbols: Add trademark symbols to let others know you’re claiming a trademark. Use ™ for goods and SM for services. According to USPTO’s Trademarks Registration Toolkit, you can use these symbols “even if you haven’t filed an application to register your trademark."

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