Small business owner doing research into patents and trademarks

What’s the Difference Between a Patent and a Trademark?

2 min read • Jan 06, 2020 • Elizabeth Aldrich

Both patents and trademarks are ways of legally designating something as intellectual property and barring others from replicating that thing. Understanding the difference between a patent and a trademark will help you decide which one is right for your business.

What Is a Patent?

A patent is a license that gives the owner the sole right to produce or sell an invention for a certain period, excluding all other persons and businesses from doing so by way of intellectual property law. An invention is a new technology or product–something that’s manufactured–such as a medical formula, a tool, an instrument, or a spare part. You can’t patent just anything, however. You must be able to prove that the item you want to patent is useful, novel, and not obvious.

What Is a Trademark?

A trademark is a word, symbol, phrase, color, or image registered as the intellectual property of a person or entity to prevent others from using that mark. Examples of marks that are often trademarked include logos, company names, product names, and slogans. In order to trademark something, you must be able to show that it is distinct and serves to distinguish you or your business from the competition.

Patents and Trademarks: Understanding Key Differences

To help you understand the differences between a patent and a trademark, we’ll use an example. Jane is the owner of a company that manufactures eyeglasses. Jane’s company has a unique name, and their signature frames have a unique product name as well, which help the consumer to recognize their product as belonging to them. Both of those names would be trademarked.

Jane’s company has also produced a new lens technology that does a better job of preventing scratching and protecting your eyes from UV rays. For this technology, Jane would get a patent.

Let’s say that this new lens technology also results in lenses that have a notably different shape and color than traditional lenses. In addition to patenting the lens technology, Jane’s company could also trademark the shape and color of the lens for use in a logo.

Should You Trademark or Patent?

To help you decide whether you need a trademark or patent, the table below lays out the differences and situations in which one is more appropriate than the other.

What can it be applied to?What are the requirements to obtain it?How does it protect you?Duration
PatentAn object or design that utilizes new technologyUsefulness, novelty, and non-obviousnessProhibits others from producing or selling your product20 years
TrademarkA word, phrase, symbol, shape, color, or other image that distinguishes your brandDistinctnessProhibits others from replicating or using your trademark or an image that closely resembles your trademark10 years

Now that you understand the differences between a patent and a trademark and how each one functions legally, deciding which one to apply for should be clear.


Elizabeth Aldrich

Elizabeth is a freelance writer covering personal finance, business, and travel. Her writing has appeared in The Motley Fool, Business Insider, Yahoo! Finance, LendingTree, Student Loan Hero, FOX Business, and more.