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What Is the Difference Between Copyrights, Trademarks, and Patents?

Many small business owners make the mistake of assuming that intellectual property laws do not or cannot apply to them. Instead, your business’s intellectual property can sometimes be the most valuable aspect of your business. Your company’s good name, processes, and products are all extremely important aspects of your company. Intellectual property laws, including those that create copyrights, trademarks, and patents, all help protect your company’s irreplaceable assets.

Here, we discuss the differences between copyrights, trademarks, and patents and how the registration process can help you protect your business’s most important assets.


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What is a copyright?

A copyright protects original works of authorship in a tangible medium. It covers both unpublished and published works.

Copyrights get their legal authority from the United States Constitution. A copyright provides extensive protection to tangible items that you or your company create. Having a copyright ensures that you or your business has the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, or sell a work of authorship.

Common examples of things that may be copyrighted include:

  • Nonfiction and fiction writings, including books, articles, poems, directories, advertising, catalogs, speeches, and more
  • Musical works, including both the music itself and the accompanying lyrics
  • Plays, scripts, screenplays, and other dramatic works
  • Choreographic works
  • Sketches, drawings, cartoons, paintings, photographs, and other pictorial or graphic works
  • Sound recordings and motion pictures
  • Compilations of existing materials

Depending on your line of business, the work that you do on a daily basis may qualify for copyright protection.

What is a trademark?

A trademark is any design, symbol, word, or phrase that identifies your company or your products and distinguishes them from other companies or products. Generally speaking, anything that specifically identifies your business can be considered a trademark. Examples include:

  • Your business’s name
  • Your logo
  • A product name
  • Sounds
  • Product packages
  • Symbols or designs

If your business has a name or logo, you may want to consider registering those to protect them from unauthorized use by other people or companies.

Services can also get some protections as well, but these are known as “service marks” rather than trademarks.

What is a patent?

A patent is used to protect inventions. It stops others from making, selling, or using your invention for a period of time. It prevents others from stealing your good ideas and making money from them.

Things that get patent protection include:

  • Machines
  • Manufactured articles
  • Chemical compositions
  • Industrial processes

Things that occur naturally cannot be patented, even if they are considered a new discovery.

Unlike copyrights and trademarks, patents only provide protection for a certain number of years.

  • Design Patents: 15 years
  • Utility Patents: 20 Years
  • Plant Patents: 20 Years

Some extensions and adjustments might also be available as well.

How do I register my copyright, trademark, or patent?

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) oversees and approves trademarks and patents. The U.S. Copyright Office deals with copyright registration in the United States.

Patent Applications

An inventor must apply for a patent within one year of publicly disclosing the invention. In general, it is a good idea to do a preliminary search to determine if any such invention has been previously patented and whether you meet the requirements to get a patent.

You have to meet certain qualifications to get a patent for your invention, and the application process can be a bit daunting. Inventions that qualify for a patent must be both “novel” and “non-obvious.” That is, it must be different from any and all other products, but those differences do not have to cover the entire product. For example, your invention can use component parts that are similar or the same as another product—as long as they are used in combination differently or include additional parts.

Trademark Registration

You do not have to register your trademark to use it, but registration gives you some additional legal protections that you may not have without registration.

Trademark registration gives you the legal presumption that you own the trademark, which can be very important if you get into a legal battle about whether you used a name or logo first. You also get the benefit of being able to assert your legal claim in federal court.

Like patents, registering a trademark involves an application process. However, the application for registering a trademark is not nearly as extensive as getting a patent. In general, you must describe the item you want to trademark, set out how you intend to use it, and pay a registration fee. Before you start that process, however, you should do a search to ensure that no one else has registered a trademark that is the same or substantially similar to yours.

Copyright Protection

Your work has copyright protection from the moment that it is created. You can still register it with the U.S. Copyright Office if you would like added protection, however.

Like registering your trademark, registering your copyright provides a good indication that you are the owner of the work, and if any legal issues arise down the road, you can prove when you created the work based on the registration. Registered copyrights may also provide additional money damages in litigation, and you might be able to get your attorney fees paid back if you have to go to court as well.

Like registering a trademark, copyright registration has its own application process.

Do I need a lawyer to register my copyright, trademark, or patent?

You can go through the registration or application process for your copyrights, trademarks, and patents without an attorney. However, you may want help searching for registrations and making sure that you meet the application process requirements. Use Rocket Lawyer Trademark Registration services if you would like to avoid the hassle of conducting a search, evaluating your proposed mark, filling out the correct forms, and filing them. Our Rocket Lawyer trademark experts can perform all of these tasks for you at an affordable price. 

Reach out to a Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorney if you have specific questions about your intellectual property or to discuss the aspects of the registration process you can do on your own and when it might make sense to get an attorney to help out.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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