Copyright, trademarks & patents: What’s the difference?

Here are a few basics about the three main forms of intellectual property protection.

Please note that this is just general guidance, based on information excerpted from the US Patent & Trademark Office and the US Copyright Office websites, and is not legal advice.

What is copyright?

Copyright protects original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression (written, typed, recorded, painted, etc). Note that ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be. (See below for more about protecting other types of intellectual property.)

legal-watercolor-dream-do-live-love (1)Copyright protects original works of authorship (published and unpublished) including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software and architecture.

Your work is under copyright protection 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.

Find out more about copyright at the U.S. Copyright Office website

What are patents?

A patent protects inventions or discoveries. In order for an invention to be patentable, the subject matter must be sufficiently different from what has been used or described before, to an extent the new idea would not be obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the area of technology related to the invention. (For example, simple alterations — the substitution of one color for another, or changes in size — are generally not patentable.)

A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Generally, the term of a new patent is 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed in the US.

What is granted is not the right to make, use, offer for sale, sell or import, but the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention.

There are three types of patents:

1) Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.

2) Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.

3) Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.

Read more about patents at the US Patent & Trademark Office site.

What is a trademark?

A trademark is a brand name.  A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others.

Common law rights arise from actual use of a mark and may allow the common law user to successfully challenge a registration or application.

Although federal registration of a mark is not mandatory, it has several advantages, including notice to the public of the registrant’s claim of ownership of the mark, legal presumption of ownership nationwide, and exclusive right to use the mark on or in connection with the goods and/or services listed in the registration.

Find out more about trademarks here at the US Patent & Trademark Office site.

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