Patents, Trademarks and Copyrights: What’s the Difference?

The differences between patents, trademarks and copyrights are not obvious to the casual observer, and these terms are often intertwined or misused with one term for the other. To set the record straight, here are some practical ways to think through the differences between these types of intellectual property.

Patents are rights bestowed by the federal government to inventors of a new utilitarian apparatus or process, a new design, or a new plant variety. The patenting process is a formal application process that must be made through the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. The patent right is the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale or importing whatever is claimed in a particular patent. The term of a utility patent is 20 years from the filing date of the application.

Trademarks are symbols used to designate a source of a good or service. An important function of trademark law is to protect the consumer so that consumers can be confident in the sources from which they buy goods or services. No formal application process is required to obtain trademark rights. However, there are many good reasons to consider taking formal steps with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to protect your trademark through a formal application process. Trademarks have no expiration date.

Copyrights protect the expression of information when such information is placed in a tangible medium of expression. Examples include photographs, art work, music, books and computer code. No formal process is required to obtain copyrights in your original works of authorship but, as with trademarks, there are many good reasons to consider taking formal steps to register your copyright. Compared with patents and trademarks, the registration of copyrights is relatively inexpensive. The term for a copyright is typically the author’s life plus 70 years.