Understand the Difference Between Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks

5 min read • Apr 10, 2021 • Rebecca Lake

Essentially, every business must be concerned with patents, copyrights, and trademarks. These are all types of asset protections, even though the assets might be intangible. Your business assets might include equipment, real estate, or cash reserves tucked away in a bank account, but you probably also own something else: intellectual property.

Intellectual property refers to things like inventions or designs for an invention, manuscripts, books, creative licenses, or logos. Patents, copyrights, and trademarks protect different types of intellectual property businesses can own. Understanding how each protection works will help you secure your intellectual property, which might be the most valuable asset your business possesses.

What is the difference between copyright and trademark? What is a patent? Copyrights, trademarks, and patents differ in what kind of intellectual property they each protect.

Copyright vs Trademark vs Patent

The United States government’s laws surrounding intellectual property can be hard to understand if you aren’t a lawyer. Each type of intellectual property involves different laws and requirements, so there are some basic concepts to understand before going forward with your patent, copyright, or trademark.  

A copyright protects original works, such as art, literature, or other created work.

A trademark protects names, short slogans, or logos.

A patent protects new inventions, processes, and compositions of matter (such as medicines). Importantly, ideas cannot be patented—your invention must be embodied in a process, machine, or object.

Trademark vs Copyright

The simplest way to understand the difference between a copyright and trademark is size.

A copyright is for entire works, like books, songs, software code, or photographs. Trademarks are for logos, phrases, or designs that identify your brand or business.

What’s a Patent?

A patent is a special license issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that gives you the exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention for a set period of time.

Patents aren’t all the same; there are 3 kinds to choose from based on your situation.  

Utility

These patents are good for 20 years and are used to protect machines, manufactured items, processes, methods, and compositions of matter.

Provisional

This is a short-term patent with a 12-month term that covers the same things as utility patents and allows you to fast-track market testing of your product or idea.

Design

Design patents have a 14-year term and cover the artistic or ornamental design elements of an item you manufacture for commercial use.

Remember, if your patent expires, that opens up the field for anyone else to copy and sell your invention. You’ll need to pay regular maintenance fees to keep your patent active. Once it expires, it can only be renewed by an act of Congress.

Copyrights Help Creatives

If your business involves creating original works, such as books, articles, songs, photographs, or artwork, a copyright legally identifies them as belonging to you.

But what exactly does a copyright protect against? Essentially, they’re a legal way to keep someone else from copying work you’ve created.

They don’t protect your ideas, however. If you develop an app based on an original concept, for example, and someone else has the same idea, there’s nothing to stop them from producing their own iteration of it.

Copyrights can be registered with the US Copyright Office. Once you register a copyright, it’s good for the rest of your life, plus an additional 70 years.

Trademarks Protect Brand Identity

A trademark is a word, phrase, design, or symbol that identifies and distinguishes your business’s products and/or services from another. Unlike patents, trademarks don’t expire and don’t have to be registered.

But registering a trademark with the USPTO gives you some advantages since it’s a public statement of your ownership claim to a particular mark. Once your trademark is registered, no one else can use it. If they do, you could sue them for trademark infringement.

Before registering a trademark, it’s a good idea to make sure no one else has laid claim to it. You can search for trademarks already in use here.

Can I Trademark a Phrase?

You can trademark a phrase, but many rules impact this process. You cannot trademark a phrase that is part of everyday speech common in business. The phrase must be distinctive, i.e. not generic or merely descriptive, especially in terms of your line of business. You cannot trademark a phrase just because you like it—you must show that you intend to use the phrase to sell goods or services.  

What Words Cannot be Trademarked?

Generally, trademarks are weak based on how generic and descriptive they are. If you own a bicycle rental store, you cannot trademark the word “bike.” You might be able to trademark a descriptive word if it isn’t directly connected to your business—Apple, the computer company, trademarked “apple,” but an apple orchard would not fare well with the USPTO with a similar application.

Furthermore, a trademark only protects you against competitors in the same line of business. The apple orchard mentioned above would probably not have to worry about a trademark lawsuit from Apple.

You cannot trademark vulgar, disparaging, immoral, deceptive, or scandalous words, as determined by the USPTO. Additionally, you cannot trademark proper names or likenesses without the permission of the person, and you cannot trademark anything involving US presidents or the U.S. government.

How Long Does a Trademark Last?

In the US, a trademark essentially lasts forever. If you register your trademark with the USPTO, you have to renew your registration every 10 years. If you let your registration lapse, your trademark is still protected under common law, but USPTO registration provides you with the highest standard of intellectual property protection.

Is It Better to Copyright or Trademark a Logo?

In most cases, you probably want to trademark a logo if you plan to use it connected to the sale of goods or services. If you think you would use your logo in some other way, like if you consider it a work of art in itself, you could apply for a copyright. 

Rebecca Lake

Rebecca Lake is a financial journalist covering small business, investing, and personal finance. Her work has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, Investopedia, and The Balance. She also works with top banking and insurance brands, including Citibank, Ally, Discover Bank, and AIG.