Intellectual property (IP) has been around since the first idea popped into the first brain. But ever since people began making money off their ideas, it’s been difficult to figure out how to keep others from making money off ideas that aren’t their own.

To know how to protect your business, you first have to know that what you’re protecting isn’t your business per se. It’s your business’ ideas, and there are different categories.

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Defining Your Property

There are three classic types of intellectual property you can legally protect through registration filings and a fourth more nuanced type. The first is patents. File a patent if you’ve created something tangible, like a revolutionary machine. Nikola Tesla had nearly 300 patents, but he neglected to patent some of his most important inventions, including a possible telephone amplifier.

A second category of IP is copyright. This protects output like this article and other written works like novels. It also protects creative output of other artists such as painters and photographers. If you publish your work online, making an artist’s statement, such as the one on this photographer’s website is a start to protecting your work. However, you can go further by registering your work through the United States’ Copyright Office.

The most mysterious of the four are trade secrets. Trade secrets are information that can lend financial gain to a business as long as they are kept secret. The government cannot help a business protect its trade secrets. If you have plans for a facility that creates a product unique to your business, those plans can be construed as trade secrets.

The type of intellectual property that pertains to most businesses, however, is the trademark. When someone says: “That should be your trademark,” think long and hard about that statement. Unless it’s a process, which would be a patent, they might be right.

Trademark Nitty-Gritty

Trademarks protect very specific things for business owners. This is how you make sure you protect the distinction that is your brand. You or a brand designer or manager has likely taken a long time to gather fonts, colors, and myriad other materials together to make the character of your business unique.

This includes your business name. One of the most crucial steps you must take before registering any number of trademarks for your business and its brand is researching whether there’s a similar existing trademark out there. Otherwise, you may be committing trademark infringement, the very thing against which you’re setting out to protect yourself!

Trademark infringement can happen easily because of enthusiasm for a new business. Of course, sometimes learning you’re infringing on a trademark can also work to your advantage. Meriwether Cider Company in Boise, ID, started under a different name before learning a similar business was already using the name. Harkening back to the family’s heritage, the business registered in honor of an ancestor. Now the company has an a whole different story to tell!

How do you avoid having to change names or logos before you even get started? The United States Patents and Trademarks Office (USPTO) has a trademarks database that can and should be searched as part of the registration process.

Don’t forget to Google your name and any variation you can think of — you never know what may pop up in the search results. You can consult with a trademark attorney if you think it’s necessary. Registering a trademark will cost at least $300. Consulting with an attorney is likely to add to the cost burden.

Once you have determined that your trademark is entirely your own, feel free to begin the registration process through the USPTO. However, if there is the slightest kernel of doubt about the singularity of your trademark, it is likely worth it to spend the money on consulting with an attorney.

If you’ve done the research, even consulted an attorney, and have intellectual property you want to protect, it’s time to file! Protecting your intellectual property, especially your brand, is essential for growing your business. Your brand is your business. Trademark it!