Copyrights vs Trademarks vs Patents

Copyrights, trademarks, and patents differ in several ways.  All provide a form of legal protection for the owner, but each references a different product or intellectual property.  In addition, the registration process and fees associated with copyrights, trademarks, and patents bear little resemblance to each other.  As one might expect, fully understanding the intricate differences between the three requires extensive knowledge of varying forms of intellectual property, marketing, and how to differentiate between art and a brand.

The Copyright Office of the Library of Congress handles evaluation and registration of all copyrights in the United States.  Copyright law has progressed quite a bit from its origins in the Constitution.  Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution states:

 The Congress shall have power […] To Promote the  Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for  limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive  Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

This clause laid the groundwork for future copyright and patent law in the United States.  Congress passed the first piece of copyright legislation in 1790 with the Copyright Act of 1970.  Several pieces of legislation passed since the 1970 Act, including the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988, Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, and Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005.  The continued passing of legislation allows the law to adapt to the changes in technology and new challenges presented in protecting the intellectual property of individuals. 

A copyright is used to protect “original works of authorship” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and other intellectual works.  These intellectual works maintain protection whether published or not.  Ownership of a copyright grants the legal right to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute, and perform or display publicly the protected intellectual property.  Many people misunderstand the scope of copyright protection.  For example, a copyrighted song about apples allows only for protection of the lyrics and music which comprise the song.  The owner does not have the legal ownership of all songs about apples.  Anyone else may still write a song about apples as long as it does not infringe upon the aforementioned copyrighted song’s lyrics and music.

The Patent and Trademark Office handles evaluation and registration of patents and trademarks in the United States.  Trademarks protect intellectual property used in the process of commerce and trade.  Specifically, words, names, symbols, logos, and other devices used in trade or commerce to differentiate a particular product from others fall under trademark protection.  Trademarks are used to protect a company’s brand identity by preventing anyone else from using a similar word, name, symbol, or logo for the purpose of trade or commerce.  An excellent example of a recent issue regarding potential trademark violation involves rising musician Evan Taubenfeld (news link).  Mr. Taubenfeld wrote a song titled ‘Starbucks Girl” and used a logo strikingly similar to Starbucks to help promote the new song.  Upon attempting to form a partnership with Starbucks to promote his song, the company refused and instructed Mr. Taubenfeld to cease the use of his ‘Starbucks Girl’ logo on products promoting his song. 

In addition to the differences detailed above, obtaining a trade mark requires a significantly larger amount of time and financial resources.  The Patent and Trademark Office must conduct a thorough investigation to ensure no other piece of intellectual property resembles the subject of the application.  To simplify, a copyright protects a tangible piece of intellectual property (i.e. song, book, or art).  A trademark protects brands, identities, and such by securing the rights to logos, slogans, names, etc. for use in trade or commerce.

Patents protect inventions by securing the rights to prevent others from making, using, offering for sale, and/or selling the indicated item.  The protection of a patent does not extend beyond the United States, its territories, or possessions.  Patents differ from copyrights in that they protect an inventor from others making, using, offering for sale, and/or selling his/her invention.  A copyright secures the protection of a tangible piece of intellectual property such as a song or work of art.  The ability to collect damages or royalties from those who infringe upon the copyright also exists.  Basically, whereas a copyright protects the right to make or produce a piece of intellectual property, a patent protects the owner by prohibiting others from making or producing the patented piece of intellectual property.

This article serves as a brief discussion of the purpose of copyrights, trademarks, and patents as well as the differences between the three.  Obviously, all three forms of protection have layers of legislation outlining in much greater detail the intricacies of each and how to use them to secure intellectual property.  Many law students study and specialize in intellectual property law by spending excessive hours and dollars to learn all the details regarding copyrights, trademarks, and patents.  To learn more about these three forms of intellectual property protection and find the information used to help write this article visit the following websites:

US Copyright Office
US Patent and Trademark Office
Copyright Law Wikipedia