by Deborah Sweeney | Featured Contributor
You’d be hard pressed to meet an entrepreneurially-minded woman who doesn’t consider Etsy to be an incredible haven for business. 88% of all Etsy sellers are women, according to the site’s November 2013 progress report, and 74% of sellers consider their Etsy shop to be a legitimate small business. And, because so many owners see their Etsy shop as a legitimate business, one of the most common questions they have is whether they need to protect their intellectual property with a trademark, patent, or copyright. I always recommend new small business owners err on the side of caution when it comes to IP protection, so if you are thinking about registering a mark or filing a patent but aren’t sure where to start, ask yourself the following questions.
Do you need to protect your logo or branding?
Then you should register a trademark. Now, you have the rights to a mark the minute you start using a unique logo, word, phrase, symbol, design, or any sort of branding, to distinguish yourself from your competitors. Technically, you don’t have to register a mark in order to claim it. However, if you don’t register a trademark with the USPTO, you may find it a difficult to enforce your rights to that mark, especially if the infringing party is outside of your home state. Etsy is a huge site, with international sellers and domestic shops from all fifty states. If your business is picking up, it would be a smart move to trademark your logo or branding before someone steals it so you can enforce your right to your brand.
Do you need to protect your design or art?
Etsy shops abound with paintings, sculptures, and custom jewelry, but all of this unique work is in danger of being stolen if the creator doesn’t register a copyright. Just like with a trademark, the creator of any unique, creative piece of work has automatic copyright protection for it. However, if someone infringes on that copyright, it can be difficult to litigate without having registered the work’s copyright. Copyright registration is pretty straightforward – you just file a form along with a clear rendition of the work being registered. Keep in mind though that you cannot legally protect an infringing product – a necklace with a Golden Snitch on it is awesome, but someone else already owns the rights to that design – and the item being registered has to show some minimal degree of creativity.
Do you need to protect something you created?
Most Etsy shops probably won’t need to venture beyond a trademark and/or copyright. However, if your store is selling something that you invented, or you created an innovative new design for a functional item, you could consider filing for a patent. There are two main types of patent – utility patents and design patents. Utility patents effectively protect new and useful inventions, while a design patent protects the unique, aesthetic appearance of an object. If a new piece of jewelry you designed isn’t necessarily creative, but is still aesthetically unique, a design patent can protect it. Etsy’s blog actually has an excellent post on the patent process for one shop owner’s flower pot/reed diffuser.
Intellectual property law is complicated, but I cannot stress how important IP protection is. There are plenty of horror stories of Etsy shops, eBay sellers, and other online businesses finding their designs and products ripped off and sold cheaper. Your Etsy shop is a business, so you need to protect it and your brand. If you use a unique logo, or sell your own, creative work, and expect to expand, make sure to file to protect or register your intellectual property as soon as possible – the last thing you want is for someone else to profit from your hard work.
Deborah Sweeney – Legal Expert, CEO, MyCorporation.com – Calabasas, CA
As CEO of MyCorporation Business Services, Inc. (MyCorporation.com), Deborah Sweeney is an advocate for protecting personal and business assets for business owners and entrepreneurs. With her experience in the fields of corporate and intellectual property law, Deborah has evolved from lawyer to business owner. She has extensive experience in the start-up and entrepreneurial industry as she has been involved in the formation of hundreds of thousands of businesses for MyCorporation.com’s customers.
Ms. Sweeney received her JD & MBA degrees from Pepperdine University. She is active in the community and loves working with students and aspiring entrepreneurs. She serves on the Board of Regents at California Lutheran University and is a founding member of Partners of Pepperdine. Deborah has served as an adjunct professor at the University of West Los Angeles and San Fernando School of Law in the areas of corporate and intellectual property law. Ms. Sweeney is also well-recognized for her written work online as a contributing writer with top business and entrepreneurial blogging sites. She is a regular contributor on Forbes, American Express, Social Media Today, and BlogHer among many others.
In her ‘free’ time, Deborah enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons, Benjamin (8) and Christopher (6). Deborah believes in the importance of family and credits the entrepreneurial business model for giving her the flexibility to enjoy both a career and motherhood. Follow her on Twitter @deborahsweeney and @mycorporation.