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What is the Difference Between a Copyright, Trademark, and Patent?

By T Thompson
Updated May 16, 2024
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Copyrights, trademarks, and patents are all forms of legal protection provided by a governmental entity to inventors, musicians, businesses, and many others. Each offers a unique set of rights and protections, but differ in what they cover, as well as how long those protections last. In general, a copyright protects written or artistic works, like books, plays, musical compositions, and paintings; trademarks protect brand names and symbols, like logos; and patents protect inventions, including processes, devices, designs, and even plants.


A copyright protects a wide range of creative or intellectual work. This includes written works as well as dramatic, musical, and artistic creations. Some items covered by copyright include movies, songs, books, sculptures, and computer software. A copyright gives the creator exclusive rights to the material; typically, this includes the right to perform or display the work publicly as well as produce and sell copies of the material. The copyright owner may also import or export the work, transmit it through radio or video, and decide who else may perform or financially profit from it.

In most cases, a work does not have to be published to be copyrighted. Depending on where the work is produced, it may not even have to be registered. In the US, for example, a work is protected by copyright the moment that it is created. Registering the creation with a copyright office is often recommended, however, as it can help clarify any future disputes as to ownership.

Though a copyright protects a form of expression, it does not affect the subject matter of the work. In other words, if someone wrote an article about a new car, the text of that article would be copyrighted, preventing someone else from using those exact words in the same order. This does not prevent others from writing their own original article about the new car, however, or from using or making the car themselves.

The length of time that copyright protection lasts may vary based on jurisdiction. In the US, the term is based in part on the type of work involved; for most works produced after 1978, it lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. Throughout most of the world, the term granted is usually the life of the creator, plus an additional 50 or 70 years. After the term expires, the work typically becomes public domain, which means it is accessible by the general public without having to pay a fee or request permission from the copyright holder. For example, the works of William Shakespeare are in the public domain, so anyone can publish them in book form or make a movie based on one of his plays without asking for permission.

A copyright is generally, technically territorial, or only good within the country of origin. Most nations, however, have agreements with other countries to honor each others' copyrights. Not every country shares such relationships, however, and a few countries provide little or no protection for works produced in other nations.

Trademarks and Service Marks

A trademark is used to protect a word, symbol, device, or name that is used in commerce. The purpose of a trademark is to distinguish the products of one source, such as a company, from those of another. Although an individual can trademark something, the are usually applied for by businesses or legal entities. At its most basic, a trademark may be thought of as protection for a brand name. A service mark is essentially the same as a trademark, but applies to services rather than products. In general, registration of a trademark remains valid in the US as long as the holder continues to file the required documentation every 10 years.

One common reason that a company might trademark a word or symbol is to prevent other companies from selling a comparable product using a very similar word or symbol as the brand. If the brand name or logo are not easy to distinguish, a consumer might confuse the product from one company with that of the other. A trademark does not, however, prevent other people or businesses from producing the same product or services under a different mark.

For example, the Nike® "swoosh" is a trademarked symbol that identifies products sold under the Nike brand; no other company that sells the same products — running shoes, athletic apparel, etc. — can use a similar logo. Reebok®, however, can sell shoes and athletic gear under its own brand.

A trademark does not necessarily have to be registered to be valid; in the US, an individual or company can claim rights over the use of a word or symbol in commerce simply by using it. Often, companies will add a ™ to a brand name to establish ownership, and while they are waiting for a registered trademark (®) to be approved. Registering a mark with the US government gives the owner additional benefits, however, including the right to bring a lawsuit in federal court against another company it feels is infringing on the mark, the right to use the registered trademark symbol in commerce, and establishing a basis to register the trademark in other countries.

There are no international trademarks. Owners of trademarks in the US who want to protect their marks in other countries must apply for that protection. There are registration systems, such as the Community Trademark System (CTM), which covers European Union member states, and the Madrid System for the International Registration of Trademarks, which allow a trademark seeker to use one basic application to apply to register the trademark in any or all of the nations that are members of the system. Applying through these or other systems does not guarantee that the mark will be approved, however, and not all countries are members of such systems.


A patent is a form of legal protection for an invention. They afford inventors with property rights that are intended to prevent anyone else from making, using, or selling the patented invention. There are three types of patents: utility, plant, and design.

  • Utility patents cover those who invent new — or develop a new and useful improvement on — processes and machines, as well as those who discover new compositions of matter. This is what most people think of when they think of a patent; it includes things like machines, an original series of steps for making something, and synthesized molecules and chemicals.
  • Plant patents are designated for those who discover or invent, and reproduce a new variety of plant. Someone who develops a new distinct variety of apple, for example, could apply for a plant patent.
  • Design patents are reserved for creators of new ornamental designs for functional items. This could include the design of a piece of furniture or a water bottle.

Patent protection lasts for a limited amount of time, usually 20 years from the date of the application, and is only effective in the country in which it was filed. The application must include a detailed description of how the invention works. Since a patent is considered "property," it may be bought, sold, mortgaged, or licensed by the owner.

How to Get a Copyright, Trademark, or Patent

The process for getting a copyright, trademark, or patent varies by country, as do the requirements for registration. Registration is not always required for copyrights and trademarks, although in both cases, there may be benefits to doing so. In most cases, an applicant must file the appropriate paperwork with a specific governmental agency, some of which allow for online filing. In the US, trademarks and patents can be registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), while copyrights can be registered through the United States Copyright Agency. Usually, the agency will charge a fee for filing; typically, these fees and the waiting periods for approval or rejection are higher for trademarks and patents, since the USPTO conducts a substantive review of those applications to avoid potential conflicts.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By Jeanne12 — On Oct 12, 2015

Making use of patents is very useful in each and every type of business. One must understand that it is also helpful to have patent for all the invention and art work owned. While applying for the patents we understand about the various types of IP and their rights.

By AshleyHarper — On Feb 28, 2014

Getting a trademark registered is very important. I know of a guy who had not done this an started a business only to be sued by a bigger company who had the same trademark. He lost quite some amount that he had saved in hopes of expanding the business. So when my friend started a business I first told him to go to a new business service. They helped us with all the points of starting a business. They helped him find a good trademark and got it registered.

By Shally — On Jan 28, 2014

To patent something simply means that we need to make it more private. It is a good habit as it prevents your private properties from being stolen. We should be careful about the selection process of trademark consultants for patenting.

By anon347226 — On Sep 05, 2013

This is a great. Most people do not know the difference. Since the differences are important, we need to educate. Branding is so tied to these things and yet people know very little about any of them.

By anon343668 — On Aug 01, 2013

@rwotter: The way I see it, you would most likely be naming those new roller skates MacDonald's in order to gain some marketing edge over other skate manufacturers, and the McDonald's restaurant company would probably still sue you for something. You could make the argument that MacDonald is your family name and you had no idea there was a multi-billion dollar food company with a similar name. However, you'd still get laughed at in court.

The argument that you are marketing roller skates and not hamburgers might be a stronger one, but a judge may wonder why you insist on using that particular brand name when you know it could create confusion or appear to be a licensed McDonald's restaurant product. Again, if you happen to come from a long line of MacDonalds, then you might get away with it. But why even tease a multi-billion dollar company with deep pockets and high-priced attorneys on its side?

By rwotter — On Feb 09, 2013

If I patent a new roller skate, and call it MacDonalds, does that registered trademark work, since it does not involve the food industry and MacDonalds?

By anon298130 — On Oct 18, 2012

How many years are the holders of each of these protected?

By anon258220 — On Mar 31, 2012

I am just a common person and I have come up with a new idea for an assistive device for the disabled. How would I go about the whole process, patent, prototype, etc.?

By anon215274 — On Sep 17, 2011

How do I find out if my invention is already patented?

By anon172916 — On May 05, 2011

I drew this design in illustrator for a shirt/hoodie. I want this company to make them for my clothing line. But i am going to a mall to get it made, so i feels that he/she will want to display my item and sell it. So, should i get the design patented?

By anon169275 — On Apr 20, 2011

what is the best way to protect an invention, like playing cards? i would like to know if i have to trademark or copyright my products?

By anon164606 — On Apr 01, 2011

i want to trademark something 50/50 with a partner. How do i do this?

By anon162891 — On Mar 25, 2011

I have drawn something and written something that will always go together - yet remain separate. The drawing and the message is something that I hope many will embrace. I plan on putting that drawing - and the message - first on T-Shirts and then on baseball caps and so on.

I do not want to be limited as to what and where I can put the drawing/message. It's the message I will be pushing, not the 'thing' it's pm. So I'm confused. Would I (could I, should I?) trademark the drawing and copyright (as in 'officially register) the message? Or officially copyright both? Or trademark both? Or what? I'm really lost and could use some advice. Thank you!

By anon123011 — On Oct 30, 2010

I came up with an idea for a toy. Should I get it patented, trademarked, or copyrighted? In the past, I came up with an idea and a company took it and is making money off of it. I'm not making the same mistake again.

By anon118083 — On Oct 12, 2010

What should I do for a TV show: patent, trademark or copyright?

By anon84987 — On May 18, 2010

Why would you copyright a method of playing guitar to begin with? Music is meant to be shared!

By rochroch1 — On Mar 23, 2010

I have authored a method for playing guitar which I have copyrighted.

However, I would like to know whether or not the *title* I have given this method is covered under the copyright, or if I should trademark it to prevent its use by someone who might apply the title to their own original work.

I also use a logo. Should I trademark that as well or can it be covered by the copyright? Thanks for any info. The copyright and patent offices won't advise on these matters and attorneys are pricey.

By anon71888 — On Mar 20, 2010

Can i use a copyrighted name? As in, I wanted to use a name, but the site has it copyrighted. I would use it as a non-profit thing, so I'm still not sure its okay.

By anon42578 — On Aug 22, 2009

can i patent BJP's and congress' flag in india?

By sunrisearifa — On May 21, 2009

how can a patent help a business man in trading?

what things can be the right to be patented?

By genesis — On Oct 02, 2007

can you copyright an expression?

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