The Differences between Patents, Trademarks and Copyrights

The Differences between Patents, Trademarks and Copyrights

The Differences between Patents, Trademarks and Copyrights

The distinction between different kinds of intellectual property is often hard to see, even among the professionals who work at the US Patent and Trademark Office and who work in IP law.  Still, there are certain distinctions between the three major types of intellectual property. Here is a look at the differences between patents, trademarks and copyrights.


Put simply, if you come up with an idea that can turn into one or more physical objects, you need a patent.  This means that if you come up with a new and specific invention, process, design, or strain of asexually reproduced plant, then you can get a utility, design, or plant patent.  Different patent types cover different ideas, so make sure you get the right one.

Currently, a US patent lasts for 20 or 14 years depending on the type and gives you the right to enforce a production monopoly.  In other words, only people who have permission from the patent holder can create what’s on the patent (usually for a fee), but it’s also up to the holder to do the enforcing.


Trademarks (for goods) and service marks (for services) are the words, phrases, symbols, and designs that distinguish one business’s products from other businesses in the same industry.  This means company and product names, logos, and mottos, and while businesses in different industries may sometimes have the same name (think Apple Computers and Apple Records), the situation very often leads to lawsuits.

Trademarks can be registered ® or unregistered ™.  ™ has no legal standing, but it does let others know that this is your trademark and they shouldn’t use it to avoid confusion.  ® means your trademark or service mark is registered with the USPTO and as such you can sue others for infringement.  Also, registered trademarks have no expiration so long as the company keeps renewing it.


Copyrights cover art, literature, and other creative works, and unlike patents and trademarks you don’t have to register with the government to get protection (although it can help).  In exchange, copyright protections are somewhat looser, such as with Fair Use protecting reviews and parodies that feature copyrighted material.  As with patents, copyrights can be sold as work-for-hire or licensed out to publishers in exchange for royalties, and they last until the author’s death plus 70 years.

Intellectual property may be harder to quantify than physical property, but if anything it’s even more important.  Physical property includes everything you currently own, but intellectual property includes things which can make you a lot of money in the future.


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