It’s vital for communication professionals to have a basic understanding of copyright and trademark usage or best practices. I’m no expert, and this isn’t an exhaustive explanation of the subject matter. There are volumes written about the definitions and legal protections related to copyright. The intent of this post is to help you get a high-level understanding of copyright and the common symbols used to protect trademarks in marketing materials.

What is copyright?
Copyright is a protection offered to the creator or originator of work. Materials may include but are not limited to literary, graphic, photographic, audiovisual, electronic and musical works. Works are protected by a common copyright law as soon as they are created. A copyright is official when the author or creator files the work with the Library of Congress.

As communication professionals, it’s critical to understand copyright protection and how to avoid infringement or violations when we are creating materials, both for internal and external purposes. Generally speaking, use as little as possible from copyrighted materials to convey the facts. Cite the source within your material. There are circumstances where fair use is allowed, including criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship (copies for classroom education) or research.

The most common way to show legal copyright protection is to use a symbol (©) with the corresponding year the material was created, followed by the creator and “All rights reserved.” Here’s an example: ©2017 Ryan Johnson. All rights reserved. Be sure to clarify who owns the copyright if you’re creating advertising and marketing materials for a client. In most cases, the client who hires an agency retains copyright ownership for all materials created by the agency on behalf of the client.

If you’re interested in learning more about copyright, visit

What are trademarks?
You may have noticed a trademark symbol in material, such as a ™ or ®, and wondered what it is and when it’s required. A trademark is defined as a brand, symbol or word used by a company or its dealers and distributors, and is protected by law to prevent a competitor from using it. One example of a trademark is AstroTurf® — a type of artificial grass used for athletic fields. The first letter of trademarks should be capitalized, with some exceptions, such as AstroTurf, which capitalizes the “T” in “turf.”

Trademarks in the process of being formally registered may use the ™ symbol after the word in the written form. Usage varies across companies and materials. Some companies have adopted a policy to use the ™ symbol with the first reference of the protected word or phrase and omit it from subsequent references. You can imagine how messy or cluttered a document can become if the ™ symbol is written after every reference.

The highly recognizable circle-R symbol (®) identifies material has been legally registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Most companies only include the symbol on first reference in marketing materials, or once per spread, such as in product literature, for example.

Visit the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website — — to learn more about trademarks and the process for registering them. You can use the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) to search the database of registered trademarks and prior pending applications. Search results will tell you details such as if a word or phrase is registered, when it was registered, the owner and the type of mark.

What about service marks?
An organization that provides a service may seek legal protection of its service with a different type of mark. “A service mark is a legally registered name or designation used in the manner of a trademark to distinguish an organization’s services from those of its competitors,” according to U.S. law. In its simplest form, a service mark identifies a service rather than a product. Some examples of organizations that use service marks are food and transportation/logistics services. In the example of a restaurant, it provides food services to customers and requires a service mark.

Federally registered service marks use the ® symbol. A superscript SM (SM) is commonly used to identify a service is in the process of being registered with the federal government.

Why do products and services need protection?
Imagine if you created the next big thing, such as a technological gadget that everyone wanted. Once your product was ready for market, you spent significant time and money to name the product and distinguish it from organizations that may create a similar product. Without legal protection from the U.S. government, it would be easy for other organizations to steal your product’s identity and use it to sell their products. Use trademark and service mark symbols to enforce your organization’s claim to its brand.


About Ryan Johnson

Ryan is a PR pro, with an earned accreditation in public relations. He’s a senior public relations supervisor who specializes in copywriting, media relations, and custom publishing. You can pick Ryan’s brain on custom content at