10/10/18

Understand the Difference Between Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks

Your business assets might include equipment, real estate, or cash reserves tucked away in a bank account but you may 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 represent the three types of intellectual property businesses can own. This quick guide explains the ins and outs of how they compare.

What’s a Patent?

A patent is a special license issued by the U.S. 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; LegalZoom spells out three different kinds of patents business can apply for:

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 and 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 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 U.S. 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

What do Band-Aid, Google, and La-Z-Boy have in common? At first glance, it may seem like nothing but the shared thread is that they’re all trademarked brands.

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 they 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 and 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.

Not sure whether you need a patent, copyright, or trademark? Use LegalZoom’s handy index to help you decide.

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About the author

Rebecca Lake
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.

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