Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks… Oh My!

You’ve worked hard to develop an innovative idea. The last thing you want is for someone else to steal your intellectual property or take credit for it themselves, whether it is your brand, an invention, a design, or any other creation.

When expanding your European business into North America, there are a number of options for protecting your intellectual property in the United States.

Patents

Patents protect inventions, including methods and apparatus implementing such methods.

Patented inventions must be novel, useful, and non-obvious, and the process of obtaining a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is costly and time-consuming. Once approved, patents remain valid for 14 or 20 years, depending on the specific type of patent. Due to the necessity for uniqueness, it is important not to publicly disclose ideas that you intend to patent. If another inventor (individual or legal entity) applies for the patent before you do, you may lose your rights to the intellectual property.

Copyrights

Copyrights protect written or published works, such as books, songs, films, online content, and artistic works.

The good news is that such works are automatically protected by copyright, provided that they are original (no copies please!) and fixed over time. Copyrights do not need to be registered, but it may be a good idea to register yours anyway, depending on what your works entail. Registering a copyright establishes a public record of ownership and helps protect your rights in court.

If the owner is an individual, a copyright is valid for the life of the author plus 70 years. If the owner is a business or legal entity, a copyright is valid for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation.

Trademarks

Trademarks protect signs, symbols, logos, words, or sounds that uniquely distinguish your products and services.

Trademarks must be registered in order to be protected, but that’s not enough. You must also actually use the trademark as intended in order to protect your ownership of it. Unlike patents and copyrights, there is no time limitation on trademarks. As long as you continue to use your registered trademark, it will remain yours.

Lawyers…. Who Needs ‘Em!

You do.

Sure, I can translate your patent from French or Spanish into US English, no problem. But when it comes to legal advice, you’d better hire an attorney in the United States who specializes in intellectual property.

An IP attorney can explain the details of the law, help prepare your patent application, help you register your copyright or trademark, and represent you in any disputes involving intellectual property protection or infringement.

Innovative markets move quickly. You need to keep up, while also maintaining a firm grip on protecting your intellectual property.

Mr. Watson, Come Here (This Day In History – March 10, 1876)

We give very little thought these days to picking up a phone and calling anywhere in the world. Or texting. Or snapchatting. We are immensely connected to one another, a reality that has had monumental implications on our societies, economies, and more.

The world was entirely different just 140 years ago, when Alexander Graham Bell made the first ever telephone call to his assistant Thomas A. Watson, who was in the next room. (Couldn’t he just get up and walk over to his desk?!)

Bell, like several members of his family, devoted his life to the study of sound, specifically elocution, acoustics, and speech. His interest was motivated by the fact that both his mother and his wife were deaf.

In the years preceding Bell’s famous invention, telegraph communication was popular, consisting of tones transmitted via telegraph wire. However, it was clear that this form of communication would not suffice for long. From his laboratory in Boston, Bell went to work on developing a solution for transmitting sound via wire.

Initial experiments with transmitted sound produced promising, yet muffled results. To be effective, this technology would have to transmit the human voice clearly enough to be understood by someone on the receiving end.

As with many innovations, Bell was not the only inventor working to produce a feasible solution for transmitting vocal sound, but he was the first to patent the invention, issued on March 7, 1876, as U.S. patent #174,465, for “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically … by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound.”

Three days later, he demonstrated a working prototype of the telephone, by calling his assistant Watson. He said, “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you.”

And with that, the telephone was born!

(Curiously, Watson remembers the famous words slightly differently, as instead being “Mr. Watson – Come here – I want you,” so you could say that this was also the first game of telephone as well!)

Let There Be Light! (This Day In History – January 27, 1880)

On this day in 1880, the United States Patent Office granted patent #223,898 to Thomas Edison, for “an electric lamp for giving light by incandescence.”

As Edison toiled in his Menlo Park workshop, numerous inventors were also hard at work trying to create incandescent light. While Edison was not the first, his light bulb offered something the others did not: practicality. His bulbs stayed lit long after those of his competitors has burned out.

Edison had powerful connections in industry, including the profoundly wealthy J.P. Morgan, whose home was the first to be equipped with electric light.

Soon after, Edison spearheaded the electrical wiring of several blocks in New York City, in a bid to gain the public’s trust for this strange new innovation. (It is said that President Benjamin Harrison refused to touch the light switches in the White House after electricity was installed during his term.)

The buzz over electricity sparked a rivalry between Edison, still backed by Morgan, and his brilliant former employee Nikola Tesla, himself financed by George Westinghouse. The two inventors disagreed on the better current for transporting electricity: AC (Tesla) or DC (Edison).

Their feud came to a head at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, an unparalleled showcase in which to demonstrate the glory of electric light. Both men bid for the contract to provide lighting for the fair. Tesla and Westinghouse ultimately won the contract.

The rivalry between Edison and Tesla continued for many more years, fueled by their financiers, Morgan and Westinghouse. Finally, facing an insurmountable debt, Westinghouse pressured Tesla in 1907 to back off his claim for royalties tied to AC power generation. In his frustration, Tesla tore up the contract altogether, allowing Westinghouse to continue implementing AC power without the burden of having to pay royalties.

In the end, Tesla’s AC technology won, but Edison’s business sense prevailed. Both men are recognized today for their contributions to the modern age.

Whether you side with Team Edison or Team Tesla, this was certainly a notch in the timeline of human invention.