Have you ever come across intellectual property symbols such as ®, TM, SM, ©, ℗ and wondered what they meant?

These symbols are used to denote various types of intellectual property (IP) protection.  In this article, we take a look at IP symbols and their uses.


The United States Copyright Office (USPTO) states that “a trademark is a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.” The first Federal Trademark Law was enacted in 1870.  The origins of trademarks can be traced back to early merchants and tradesman. Pottery artifacts from ancient Greece and Rome have “potters marks” which were used to identify the pottery maker.  Stone structures in ancient Egypt have been found with stonecutters’ signs or inscriptions. Sword makers of the Roman Empire are thought to be among the first to use trademarks in a similar way as they are used today.

The registered trademark symbol was first introduced in the Trademark Act of 1946.  According to section Title III §29 (15 U.S.C. §1111) of the act, “a registrant of a mark registered in the Patent and Trademark Office, may give notice that his mark is registered by displaying with the mark the words ‘Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’ or ‘Reg. U.S. Pat. & Tm. Off.’ or the letter R enclosed within a circle, thus ®.”

The three most commonly used trademark symbols are:

The ® symbol for Registered Trademark. This can be used only after the USPTO officially registers the mark. The USPTO states the benefits of owning a registered mark: “constructive notice to the public of the registrant’s claim of ownership of the mark; a legal presumption of ownership nationwide, and the exclusive right to use the mark on or in connection with the goods and/or services listed in the registration; the use of the U.S. registration as a basis to obtain registration in foreign countries; and the ability to file the U.S. registration with the U.S. Customs Service to prevent importation of infringing foreign goods.”

The TM symbol for Trademark. This is used in connection with an unregistered mark. It signifies a trademark application has been filed and is pending with the USPTO. This is often used as a preventative measure to inform would-be infringers that the item is claimed as a trademark. The use of this mark is not a guarantee that the goods will receive a registered trademark.

The SM symbol for Service Mark. This is used similarly to the TM symbol, however, the service mark “identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than goods.”


The United States Copyright Office defines a copyright as “a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.” These can include literary works, artistic, dramatic and musical works such as songs and novels, as well as software and architecture. Copyrights are different from patents and trademarks in that a copyright is protected “the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” Registration is not required but does provide legal advantages and is necessary before filing an infringement lawsuit.

There are two symbols associated with copyrights.

The most common symbol is the “C in the circle © that was introduced in 1909 through the United States Copyright Act of 1909. Until 1989, the United States law required its use. After the United States enacted the Berne Convention Implementation Act, the use of the © symbol became optional, although the Copyright Office recommends it still be used.

The second symbol, “P” in a circle ℗, is infrequently used and is often mistaken as a symbol for a patent; it is actually the symbol for a sound recording (phonogram) copyright. The sound recording copyright, first introduced in 1971, differs from a standard copyright. The sound recording copyright protects the sound itself that is fixed in a recording. It does not cover other renditions of the same work by the same artist or by different artists. The copyright notice for a sound recording requires three things to appear on the work: one, the ℗ symbol; two, the year of the sound recording’s first publication, and three, identification of the owner of the copyright. The third can be omitted if the owner is the also the producer.


On July 31, 1790, Samuel Hopkins was granted the first patent in the United States. At that time, an issued patent was simply a document on a piece of parchment signed by the President, the Secretary of State and the Attorney General. Now patents are signed by the Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office and come bound with an attractive soft cover that includes the USPTO’s seal.

While there is no specific patent symbol, there are ways of showing that an item has patent protection.

The words “patent pending” or “patent applied for” can be displayed on items. These expressions are used to show that a patent application has been filed with USPTO for that particular item and is in the process of being reviewed—It is important to note that patent pending status does not mean a patent has been issued for the item. Display of the words “patent pending” serves as a notice that to those who might copy the invention that the product may be subject to an enforceable patent in the future.

Prior to the America Invents Act (AIA), the owner of an issued patent was required to physically mark the patented item or the packaging of the item with the word “patent” or the abbreviation “pat.” along with the patent number. After the adoption of AIA, the patentee was given the option of using “virtual marking” of the patent number. The word “patent” or “pat.” is required to be affixed on the item followed by an internet address where the item’s corresponding patent number can be found. Failure to properly mark the item can create roadblocks for the patentee if a patent infringement lawsuit should ever need to be filed.

In a situation that requires an image or symbol to signify a patent, the image of the USPTO’s seal and ribbon from the cover of an issued patent is often used. In this image, the USPTO seal, a federal eagle astride a shield clutching an olive branch and arrow, is imprinted in a gold medallion.

We hope this article has helped to shed some light on IP symbols and their uses.

Suiter Swantz IP is a full-service intellectual property law firm providing client-centric patent, trademark, and copyright services. If you need assistance with an intellectual property matter and would like to speak with one of our attorneys, please contact us at info@suiter.com.