Small businesses have several forms of intellectual property available to protect their assets. However, if you are new to business it’s possible you may mix up the definitions of these terms and understanding their functions. Not sure what the difference is between the three phrases? Let’s take a closer look at what each form of protection can do for your small business.


Trademarks tend to be the most confused with copyrights. However, these two terms protect two different types of intellectual property. Copyrights protect original works of authorship. This includes, but is not limited to, books, music and lyrics, art, plays, movies, photographs, and more. These works may be published and unpublished so long as the original creative expression is considered to be the work of its author.

On the other hand, trademarks protect a specific type of IP. A trademark protects media that distinguishes the uniqueness of a business to the world. Items that may be trademarked by a business include names, phrases, symbols, designs, and logos used to identify the business.

When registering for a trademark, it’s important that you do not begin the application process until you have conducted a name search. You may work alongside a third party website that provides these services for help. Or, you may conduct a quick search using the trademark database available from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

If you find your mark is available for use, you may go ahead and begin registering it at the federal level. However, if the mark is pending use under a different application or has already been filed you will need to brainstorm ideas for a new trademark. The owner of a registered trademark has exclusive rights to the mark. Using a mark that is similar to or a duplicate of an existing, registered trademark is considered infringement and could get your small business in quite a bit of legal trouble.

Service Marks

Is there any real difference between a trademark and a service mark? The answer is no. This is simply another way to describe a trademark. It’s not uncommon for forms of IP protection to have a variety of additional names they are referred to, which we will discuss a bit more when covering DBAs.

Doing Business As Names (DBAs)

A doing business as name (DBA) is the official and public registration of a name under which you do business. You may accept payments and operate the business under this name.

Does that mean a DBA is the same thing as a trademark? Not quite. Both work to protect the name of a business, but a DBA cannot guarantee name exclusivity for the company. In fact, a DBA filing only goes as far as the state level, not the federal level. Other companies in different states may have the same DBA as you — and it’s perfectly acceptable to file for one.

What else can a DBA do for a business? You may use a DBA to open a business bank account. If you have incorporated as an LLC or corporation, having a DBA also allows you to operate under additional business names that may be more representative of your startup’s subset.

Finally, I mentioned earlier that trademarks are often referred to as service marks. DBAs also go by a few additional names. Check in with your local Secretary of State. You may discover DBAs are referred to as assumed named, trade names, and fictitious names!