Along with patents, trademarks and copyrights are two of the three standard forms of intellectual property protection covered by American and by international law (and by similar laws in most other countries, as well). Essentially, the difference between a trademark and a copyright is that a copyright is the legal protection for a creative arrangement of words (e.g. books, poetry), visual elements (art or photography), audio (music), or both visual and auditory elements (television and film). In contrast, a trademark applies to a phrase, word, or logo which is not necessarily unique but which a person or company wants the sole right to use in relation to their business.
Intellectual property is a special body of law created to protect creators’ and traders’ rights to certain forms of knowledge and communication which are not tangible assets as such, but which society recognizes should still be protected as a form of private property. These include ideas for new inventions and processes (patents), creative arrangements (copyright), and trading names and marks (trademarks). In each case, the law attempts to create a balance between the rights of content creators (and the recognition that there will be fewer creators if there is no opportunity to profit), and the right of society to freely exchange what are essentially free ideas and arrangements of words.
– Trademarks –
The first of these bodies of law deals with trademarks. A trademark is a sign, word or logo which a company uses to refer to itself, its brands, and its products, and which it does not wish to allow any of its competitors to use. Essentially, the purpose of trademark law is to allow companies a form of exclusive identifier which they and only they can use to mark their products. Competitors cannot copy and use these trademarks, nor, in certain circumstances, can they make use of technically different words which are clearly intended to cause confusion with the actual trademark.
Trademarks do not have to be registered. An unregistered trademark is traditionally emblazoned with “TM.” If a trademark is registered, it is instead marked (R) and is registered, in America, with the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office (USPTO). Trademarks typically cannot be enforced if the company which holds them has made no demonstrable use of them for several years’ time, and also can be ruled invalid if the words they use have passed into common usage and therefore would not serve a useful purpose as an identifier. People can also defend their use of an apparently trademarked phrase on the grounds that they were using the term first, that they were using the term to specifically identify the trademark owner, or they are using the content of the trademark in an honest attempt to describe how their product’s function rather than to confuse consumers about the identity of the manufacturer or the product.
– Copyrights –
In contrast to trademarks, copyright law exists to protect original works of literature, media, art, and so on. Rather than protect ideas (patents) or commercial phrases (trademarks), copyright protects the expression of that idea in a particular original and creative form, such as a book, an article, a piece of art, a song recording, or a movie. Traditionally, copyright grants the right to copy, distribute and/or perform the material in question, including translation or adaptation of the work into new forms. The specific way in which these rights are prescribed differs between countries, although international laws such as the Berne Convention do specify a number of minimum requirements for member countries.
Typically national law also prescribes a number of limitations to copyrights. Fair dealing provisions, known in the United States as fair use, allows people to copy material in ways that would normally violate copyrights if it is done for one of a limited number of exempted reasons. In general these provisions allow for educational use and small-scale, non-commercial copying of a limited percentage of a work. However, the precise definitions vary by country, and individuals should be cautious not to violate the copyright laws of the jurisdiction in which they live.
In addition, copyright typically comes with an explicit expiration date. In the United States, all publications of the government are automatically assigned to the public domain; individual authors can of course also choose to explicitly relinquish their copyrights and release works into the public domain. Otherwise, copyright expires after a set amount of time. In many countries this expiration date is between 50 and 70 years after the death of the author, or the same amount of time after publication if it is a pseudonymous or corporate work with no identified living author. In U.S. law, however, pseudonymous and corporate works have a copyright lasting the shorter of either 120 years from their original creation, or 95 years from their publication. In all cases, once copyright has expired, the work enters the public domain and can be freely copied, altered, and re-published by anybody.