As an environmental nonprofit marketer, you need to know about copyrights, trademarks, and patents. You do not need to be an expert, but you need to understand their correct use and when they should be applied. …Not knowing can cost you and your organization.

For example, your boss approaches you; she says that within the budget are funds for a new outdoor sign featuring your organization’s logo. You have a non-registered trademark, but you are not sure what this means. Which of these symbols might you use?

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If you are not sure, it’s OK, a lot of people are confused by this-

One California nonprofit, responsible for visitor services at a prominent park, was also confused by how to present their trademark. During a well attended public event, I asked the Executive Director about the Circle R symbol next to their name, as I had not seen it displayed this way previously. He pointed back to the logo and said, “Oh, yeah the patent, we recently added that.” I politely asked him to clarify “the patent.” His organization was using the wrong trademark symbol with the logo, plus he did not call it by the proper name. I do not know if the mistake cost the organization financially, but it was embarrassing.

Such mistakes occur at for-profit companies too. After a tech firm had moved to a new two-story office in Silicon Valley, a new street sign was manufactured at a price upwards of $10,000 dollars. In a rush to finish-the-job, an admin ordered the sign and the incorrect trademark symbol, a “TM” was used on the sign when a “Circle-R” was needed. The oversight demonstrated that internal processes had not been followed and because of expense the error remained on the sign for several years.

Don’t make these same mistakes; here are some basics about copyrights, trademarks, and patents to avoid such confusion.

The Registered Trademark

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A trademark is a sign or design used in association with a product or service. The Circle-R demonstrates the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has recognized your trademark being used in the pursuit of commerce.

Organizations and groups obtain the Circle-R to differentiate and better protect their identity from other products or brands. After you have been recognized by the USPTO, and you need to go to court to protect your brand, your case will be significantly strengthened.

You should never use the Circle-R if the USPTO has not registered your trademark. To do so could invite possible legal headaches – don’t do it.

I will go into depth about how a grassroots organization can navigate the process for obtaining a registered trademark in another article. For now, know that if the government has not recognized you as being the owner of the trademark you should not use the Circle-R.

The Trademark:

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The “TM” is also used with a sign or design associated with a product or service, but which has not officially been recognized by the USPTO.

For grassroots environmental groups using the “TM” is the easiest way to proceed until your organization is more mature.

It is a good idea to keep a record of when you first associated the TM with your product or service. You will need this information if you apply eventually for the Circle-R registration. Also, you will need this if you ever have to go to court to defend your use of the trademark.

Note: There is a type of trademark called a service mark “SM”, this is reserved for services and is not being discussed here.

The Copyright:

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Using a “Circle-C” with your logo is incorrect – never use it!

A Circle-C represents copyright.

A copyright is used for original works, like books, videos, music or other creative pieces. The copyright allows the author to receive compensation or recognition for their idea. Use the “Circle-C” is at the end of your organization’s printed newsletter, emails, etc.

Example: © 2014 The Name of My Organization

The Patent:blog-2014-05-21_img5

Patents are used for inventions (an invention provides a solution to a product or process). If you or your organization invents a better mousetrap you would obtain a patent. You should never associate the word ‘patent’ with your logo or creative work.

I hope this helps. When you market your brand or have to speak to someone from the public you can correctly identify a trademark, copyright or patent. Knowing this will protect your brand, save money, and minimize distractions.