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What is the Difference Between ™, ®, and ©?

You see these symbols every day, but what do they mean? Here is a handy guide to help you understand the difference between ™, ®, and ©.


™ stand for “trademark.” When you see a ™ next to a word, it means that whoever put the ™ there is claiming they own the exclusive right to use that word in association with the good or service they are offering. They are claiming that word as their trademark. A trademark can be a word, logo, etc. that shows a good or service came from a particular source. You only obtain trademark rights by offering a good or service in commerce under the trademark. Once you offer a good or service in commerce under the trademark, you have common law trademark rights that extend to the boundaries of your sales market.

Apple is a trademark. Any computer related items with the Apple name or Apple logo either come from Apple, or from someone paying Apple a license fee to use the Apple trademark. But the Apple trademark only applies to specific goods and services. Apple cannot prevent you from using the word “apple” to sell apples. As applied to apples, “apple” is a generic term and, therefore, not protectable as a trademark on apples.

Using the ™ does not require any kind of registration. Therefore, you will sometimes see ™ used on words the “owner” would never be able to prove are actual trademarks. Usually ™ means the owner is unable, for cost or legal reasons, to register the trademark. But it could instead mean the owner is merely using the ™ until their federal trademark registration issues.

®
The use of ® indicates that the trademark is registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). It means that the USPTO has examined the trademark, and determined that the trademark is valid and unlikely to cause confusion with other trademarks. For any trademark with a ®, you should be able to go to uspto.gov, search the trademark, and see what goods and/or services the trademark covers. The real advantage of the registration is that it automatically covers the entire United States, and provides for attorney fees and triple damages if an infringer willfully infringes the registered trademark.

Apple is an example of a trademark that is also a registered trademark. If your trademark is valuable and protectable, you want to register it with the USPTO, and use the ® to warn potential infringers to stay away. The ® serves as a warning to others that you have the resources to register your trademark, and will likely sue them for triple damages and attorney fees if they willfully infringe your registered trademark.

©
Use of the © indicates that the user is claiming copyright in the material to which the © is applied. You usually see the © along with the year of first publication, and the name of the copyright proprietor i.e.(© 2013 Brett J. Trout). Copyright protects original works of authorship, like books, plays, software, sculpture, etc. But copyright only protects the artistic elements of those works, not the functional elements. If you come up with a new invention that holds your eyeglasses and is shaped like a fish, copyright only protects the shaped like a fish aspect. You would need a patent to protect the functional nature of your new eyeglass stand.

As soon as you write something original down, or store it on a computer, or record it on video, you have a copyright in the artistic, or “aesthetic,” aspect of that work. Unlike trademarks, you do not have to offer something for sale to own a copyright on it. You do not have to register your copyright to own the copyright or use the ©. If you are a U.S. citizen however, you do have to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, if you ever want to sue anyone for infringing your copyright. Odds are, you hold the copyright to thousands of works, and did not even know it.

Brett Trout

Posted in Copyright Law, Trademark Law.