What is the Difference Between Copyright, Trademark, and Patents?

Copyright, trademark, and patents serve to protect the artistic and scientific works that are products of creative ideas under the laws of intellectual property. Intellectual property law deals with the constitutional rights of people who create artistic and scientific works by providing legal protection for the creators and the creative work they produce.

Intellectual property laws assure people that when creating artistic or scientific works, their creations will be legally protected, allowing them to receive fair monetary compensation for their productions, and giving them confidence that other people can’t steal their creative works, without facing legal consequences.

The laws for claiming exclusive rights to an artistic or scientific work and enforcing those rights vary depending on the type of work that is created and being protected.

There are many different laws of intellectual property and the areas that are covered by them, but the three areas that are focused on for this article are copyrights, patents, and trademarks.


Copyright is legal protection given to authors of original works which include:

  • literary
  • dramatic
  • musical 
  • artistic

Copyright protection covers published as well as unpublished intellectual works. The 1976 Copyright Act gives the creator of artistic works exclusive rights to:

  • reproduce their copyrighted work
  • preparing derivative works
  • copy and distribute reproductions of the copyrighted work
  • to perform the copyrighted work publicly
  • to display the copyrighted work publicly

The copyright protects and ensures the form of expression not the subject matter of the artwork. Copyrights are registered by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.

Creators who typically file for copyright protection are:

  • authors
  • artists
  • choreographers
  • architects
  • songwriters

An idea can’t be copyrighted, because the work must be a definite, physical form or a presentation of the work for it to be protected by copyright law.

Original works of authorship include:

  • print or literary works (Books, articles, ebooks, computer software)
  • performances (plays)
  • music (songs, sheet music, lyrics)
  • choreography (dances, pantomimes)
  • movies (screenplays, stories)
  • photographs
  • sculptures
  • designs (architectural works, clothing, accessories)

Copyright lasts as long as the creator’s lifetime with an added 70 years. The copyright term can’t be renewed or extended.


A patent is a legal document which gives the creator of an invention the right to profit from it. Patents are designated by the Patent and Trademark Office, so U.S. patents are valid only within the United States, United States territories, and the United States possessions. During the validity of a patent, no one else can produce the subject of the patent, sell it, or distribute it without permission.

Two types of patents are the utility and design patents.

The utility patent is acquired by inventors for inventions that have a new or improved function like:

  • machines
  • processes
  • chemical compositions.

When registering a utility patent, it gives the owner exclusive rights to the invention and prevents anyone from making, using, selling, or importing to a different country, the legally protected invention. If the inventor doesn’t patent their design, the law can’t help protect the inventor or their invention from people who want to infringe on the inventor and their rights. After the patent is obtained, the utility patent is valid for 20 years, and it can’t be renewed for extended legal protection.

The design patent is for inventors and designers, and it protects any original, new, or ornamental design for a particular item for production. When registering a design patent, it gives the creator exclusive rights, preventing anyone from making, selling, using, or importing to a different country, the legally protected design or invention. If the creator does not patent the invention or design, the law cannot protect the design of the item or the creator/owner from people who want to infringe on their rights. The design patent protects an invention or design for 14 to 15 years and can’t be renewed for extended legal protection.

When filing for a patent, it’s necessary to give a detailed description of the invention or design, to show that it’s new and unique. A detailed description, or presentation, of the invention or design, is needed so that government officials and the public can see that the invention is new and unique and that the creator holds the rights to the item. When the patent is granted for the invention or design, it’s not for the right to make, use, sell, or import to a different country by the creator, but it’s to prevent others from making, using, selling, or importing the invention.


Trademarks are distinguishing characters or pictures that serve to represent a company or product. It’s an identifier that differentiates a business or product from others.

A trademark can be:

  • a design
  • a symbol
  • lettering (style of lettering)
  • words (such as a slogan)

Registering a trademark improves the individual’s or the company’s rights by providing legal evidence and public notice of ownership, preventing the infringing by others. It grants exclusive rights to the symbol and gives the owner the capability to initiate federal lawsuits against those who violate the owner’s rights. When a trademark is registered, the owner can use the ® symbol showing that the logo is legally protected. Trademarks that aren’t registered cannot use the ® symbol. It’s not imperative to register a trademark, but regularly using a mark, like a design or a symbol to represent your product shows ownership.

Trademark registration can have an infinite term, but it is still a good idea to renew it every ten years. The trademark owner can renew the registration as long as the symbol is continually used. Unlike a patent, trademark protection can be never-ending. The mark allows the owner to have exclusive rights to create, manufacture, and sell the products under that trademark because it distinguishes the owner’s products from all others. Trademarks are an important part of businesses and their brands, and intellectual property attorneys are very vital to those business owners who want to protect their brand.

Having copyrights, patents, and trademarks are essential to individuals or businesses who create artistic or scientific works, because it gives them legal protection not only in preserving their rights, but also giving them the legal grounds to seek justice from those who infringe on their rights as creators.