Startup Basics: Intellectual Property for Small Business Owners

As a business owner, you may want to seek protection for a product or service, a new invention, or printed material. There are three main types of intellectual property protection: patents, trademarks, and copyrights. All three are different from each other, and from business name registration, so it’s important to make sure which, if any, are appropriate for your business.

This post is for informational purposes only and nothing here should be taken as advice or direction. Before applying for intellectual property protection, consult a legal professional, such as an intellectual property attorney.

In general, a trademark typically protects brand names and logos used on goods and services; a patent protects an invention; and copyright protects an original artistic or literary work. For example, if you invent a new kind of product, you would apply for a patent to protect the invention itself. You would apply to register a trademark to protect the brand name of the product. And you might register a copyright for the TV commercial or advertisement that you use to market the product.


A trademark (also called a servicemark or tradename) typically protects the brand names and logos used on goods and services, not the name of a business. However, using your business name as a source of goods or services might qualify it as both a trademark and a business name.

Federal trademarks are obtained from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Application fees depend on the filing basis selected and which initial application form is used. You must use your trademark in more than one state to qualify for a federal trademark.

State trademarks exist, but they’re not necessary if your trademark is already registered at the federal level. They don’t offer the same level of protection as federal trademarks, but they do provide additional protection that your mark can’t be used by another entity; basically, your mark is added to a state list and anyone who checks it will see that you own that mark. In Illinois, you must use your mark in the state and provide examples of use before you can register it. Any individual, firm, partnership, LLC, corporation, association, or union can register with the Illinois Secretary of State for a $10 fee.


A patent gives legal recognition to the inventor, creator, or discoverer of a new product, procedure, or composition of matter. You may obtain a patent by fulfilling all the requirements of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. There are three different types of patents: utility, design, and plant.

A patent application is prepared by the inventor, possibly with the help of a patent attorney. The first step is a search to make sure the invention is new, unique, non-obvious, and (in the case of a utility patent) useful. The USPTO website outlines a seven-step search process; you can also go to a Patent Trademark Research Center—in Illinois there are two locations: the Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington branch and Western Illinois University’s Malpass Library, in Macomb, Illinois.

The application is filed with and examined by the USPTO. There is an application fee, and maintenance fees may also apply.


While a patent protects an invention or discovery (i.e., an idea), a copyright protects original works of authorship (which may include the expression of that idea). In general, copyright allows an author to control the copying of his or her work. Digital content like apps, blogs, and websites may also be protected by copyright, as can blueprints, advertisements, videos, and TV commercials.

Technically, original works are protected by copyright as soon as they are fixed in a tangible form. Registering your copyright is voluntary; however, it must be registered in order for you to sue someone for copyright infringement.

To register, you would file an application with the Library of Congress and provide the necessary forms, fees, and copies specified for that particular type of work. The average processing time for applications is 4 months, and you’ll receive a certificate of registration.

The Library of Congress maintains a database of copyright registrations (40 million and counting), which can be searched back to 1978. It can take several months for current registrations to appear there.
Intellectual Property Resources

More information about intellectual property, as well as application forms, can be found on the Illinois Secretary of State’s website and on the websites of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the Library of Congress.

The Naperville Public Library print collection offers several excellent books on the subject that may be helpful to the startup entrepreneur:

The library’s online resource LinkedIn Learning also offers several intellectual property courses, including “deeper dives” into patents, trademarks, and copyright. (A Naperville Public Library card is required to use this resource.)

For more information about this and other topics, consider registering for the NaperLaunch Academy workshop series or scheduling a one-on-one appointment with a business librarian or NaperLaunch coach.

Monday, July 19, 2021 - 10:45