FORTUNE Small Business:

Patent vs. copyright: Protecting your creations

What you're looking for is a copyright, FSB experts say. Here's how to get it.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Dear FSB: Do I have to patent greeting cards?

- Vanessa Evans, Lexington Park, Md.

Dear Vanessa: A patent is for an invention. According to Brent Routman, a Minneapolis attorney for Merchant & Gould, an intellectual property law firm: "Unless your greeting card has a functional or mechanical aspect to it, what you're looking for is a copyright."

Of course, if you're using someone else's artwork, you'd have to get their permission to include it on your greeting cards, and you are also barred from registering a copyright.

If your cards are entirely self-created, you have the option of registering a copyright. Registration is voluntary: Copyright is automatic under U.S. law, and your work is inherently protected the moment it is created and put in tangible form.

You will want to register, however, if you wish to file a lawsuit alleging a copyright infringement. "In doing so you're potentially entitled to greater damages - up to triple - if and when you go to court," Routman says.

As a general rule, all original artistic work created after 1978 is protected by federal copyright law for the life of the author plus 95 years if the work was published, and for the life of the author plus 70 years if it was not.

"Published," in legal terms, means mass production or distribution. This formula may vary for works created prior to 1978, since copyright laws have frequently changed over the years. When an original artistic work outlives the term of its copyright, then it goes into the public domain and anybody can use it.

However, bear in mind that not everyone registers with the copyright office, so if you're thinking about using someone else's work in your greeting cards, you'd have to find out the author's date of death (if applicable) and document when his or her work was originally made.

"Most cards are either copyrighted or have licenses for their artwork, and I would also recommend getting a trademark for added protection," says Bridget Hobson, founder of Quiplip, a San Francisco manufacturer and online retailer of greeting cards.

For more information on protecting words, phrases, symbols or designs identifying the distinguishable source of goods or services, contact the United States Patent and Trademark OfficeTo top of page

Have you filed a lawsuit against copyright infringement? Talk back here.
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