Often someone will walk into the Patent & Trademark Resource Center and say "I'd like to get a patent for my logo". It is easy to confuse patents and trademarks, because they are both intellectual property, and even share an office. However, they protect very different things.
A US patent protects one of three things: a new and useful invention, an original design for a manufactured object, or a new plant.
A trademark (or service mark), on the other hand, protects a brand. Technically, a trademark refers to a mark related to physical goods, and a service mark is a mark indicates the source of a service, but generally, the term trademark is used for both. For example, a company that sells lawnmowers would have a trademark, and a company that sells lawn care services would have a service mark.
A trademark is anything that indicates the source of a good or service. A box in a particular shade of blue comes from a specific jewelry store, and a brown truck tells you what company is delivering a package before you even see the logo on the side. A company name, logo, or slogan that is associated with the product is a trademark, even if it's not registered.
Since it usually takes a lot of work to make a phrase or logo stick in the public's mind, and even more to build a reputation, companies that have put that effort in wish to protect it. In the US, there are three types of trademark protection:
- The effort put in to build a brand reputation carries its own level of protection, called common law.
- A trademark can be registered in a state; however, the protection only extends to business conducted in that state. With this and common law, using the ™ (or SM) symbol is allowed.
- Registration with the USPTO is the most comprehensive, covering all 50 states, and even offering some protection against counterfeits crossing the border. Registration also lets you use the ® symbol as a sign that the mark is on the Federal Register.