Differentiating Patent Trademark and Copyright

Intellectual property is intangible. It is not fungible. Intellectual property law is therefore complex, varied, and often overwhelming. However, knowing how to distinguish the rights that attach to intangible property is important to anyone engaged in business or the creative process.


Intellectual property law concerns copyright, trademark, and patent law. It also addresses trade secrets, trade dress, name & likeness and right of publicity. Some state laws also protect ideas. Anyone in industry, business or a creative field should be aware of the rights they hold and must protect and enforce. Similarly, people interested in creating something “new” based on the works of others must bear in mind that rights holders have the ability to protect their own interests.

*One thing to ALWAYS keep in mind. It is ALWAYS smarter to create your own work than use someone else’s. Even if your use of another person’s work toes the line of fair use, LEGAL FEES ARE EXPENSIVE, and having to pay the costs of defending yourself in an infringement action will almost always be greater than just coming up with something on your own.*


Your copyright attaches the moment to put your work in a fixed, tangible medium. “Fixation” means writing it down, saving it to a hard drive, or otherwise putting it in a more permanent form that takes it out of the realm of mere idea. According to 17 U.S.C. 102, the categories protected by copyright include:

“(1) Literary Works

(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;

(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;

(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;

(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;

(6) motion picture and other audiovisual works;

(7) sound recordings; and

(8) architectural works.”

Copyright protection does not extend to ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, or discoveries. In other words, it doesn’t protect inventions or “useful” works. Inventions and useful works are discussed in the “patent law” section, below.

Software has been a tricky area of copyright for decades. It is undisputed that the literal elements of a computer program (i.e. the script/code, written in computer language) are protected- that is to say, all courts who have ruled on the issue (i.e the 3rd and 9th Circuits) have agreed that writing code in computer language constitutes a literary work. However, the non-literal elements are a bit more problematicthe structure, sequence, and organization of computer programs may or may not be protected by copyright. It is almost certain that some non-literal aspects of the program will not be protected because of their generalitythey will possibly be categorized as abstract ideas and not actual expression. As technology advances, we’re getting closer to a consensus, but new technology also means new intellectual property issues and disputes are popping up and may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

As for graphical displays, images, game models, quicktime events, and the like, they may be protected as distinct graphical, audio, or audiovisual works separate from the underlying literal work (the code). see Stern Electronics, Inc. v. Kaufman, 669 F.2d 852 (2d. Cir. 1982).

A copyright gives you an exclusive bundle of rights. Under US law, those rights are freely alienable, which means you can sell or license those rights to another person or company. There are 5 enumerated rights, each or any of which are severable. In other words, you can sell a narrowly tailored aspect of one right without giving up any of your other rights or your remainder in the right you sold. The rights include:

1) Distribution;

2) Reproduce (copy);

3) creation of derivative works;

4) publicly display;

5) publicly perform.

Giving someone an exclusive license or assignment of a right (i.e., the exclusive right to publicly display a work) will also prohibit you from displaying that work. It important to pay attention to what rights you are licensing or assigning. A non-exclusive license gives someone permission to use your work in accordance with the terms of the license, but you retain the rights to the work and you have the ability to license that work to other buyers. For example, if you assign all of your rights your work to a publisher you can’t turn around and distribute the work on your own without the publisher’s permission. However, if you grant a fully non-exclusive license to a distributor not only can you turn around and distribute that work on your own, but you can license the same rights to other distributors.

Your copyright triggers once you publish your work. Prior to publication, that work is covered under your state’s IP laws. Therefore, registration is not required once you’ve published the work. However, registration IS required if you plan on suing for infringement. It is generally advisable if you ever plan on selling, licensing, or assigning your rights because smart companies and business people will want those transfer/sales documents recorded with the Copyright Office for chain of title purposes. Copyright registrations are currently $45 a pop, so it’s worth getting registered. If registration occurs within three years from first publication there is a presumption of copyright validity.

Finally, it is important to note that the Copyright Act provides a safe harbor for reverse engineering. To promote freedom in the market and interoperability, competitors are able to reverse engineer software and circumvent copyright protection software and systems (DRM) without running afoul of the Copyright Act.

There are also matters of digital rights (under the DMCA) and the First Sale Doctrine, not to mention fair use, but for purposes of this article those are the basic principles of a copyright.


Federal Trademark protection is granted when a brand name or logo is first used in interstate commerce. It is covered under the Lanham Act and the Trademark Act under U.S. law. It is also given treatment in various trade agreements and treaties. Brand names and logos used in intrastate commerce (for instance, a law firm solely doing business in the state of California) are protected under state trademark laws.

So what is a trademark? It is a brand name, identifying mark, name or logo that identifies the origin of goods in commerce. A service mark serves the same function for the sale of services in commerce. Trademarks are fairly straightforward. They must be unique, and prior to registering your trademark or even settling on a trademark, you should first make sure that you’re not infringing on someone else’s trademark. A trademark is infringing if the conflicting marks are so similar as to create a likelihood of confusion in the marketplace.

While the laws concerning unfair competition and trademark infringement is rich, the basics are just thatvery basic. Infringement of a trademark typically results in equitable relief in the form of an injunction. An injunction prohibits the infringer from continued use of the mark in commerce. For basic purposes, it’s just important to make sure that no one else is using your mark. Many law firms and companies will conduct trademark searches for you for a fee. Google is also an option. For federal trademark searches, check out the USPTO

Patents are unique from Copyright and Trademark in that they give the patent holder the right to exclude others making, using, selling, or offering to sell the patented work for a certain period of time. There are three kinds of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents.

Utility Patents: Utility patents include any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof. To qualify for a utility patent, the work must be novel (new), non-obvious, and useful. A utility patent’s duration is 20 years from the date the patent application was filed. The term does not begin, however, until the patent is issued. Therefore, if a patent is issued two years after application, the duration of the patent is 18 years. The application process can take that long, and a complex patent application is next to impossible to complete without a patent attorney.

Design Patents: Protects ornamental designs of articles of manufacture. The duration of a design patent begins at issue and continues for 14 years.

Plant Patents: Protects plants that are discovered or invented and can be asexually reproduced. I seriously doubt this will have any application on the future of game development, but I’ve certainly been wrong before.


Privacy rights aren’t spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, contrary to popular belief. They are “penumbral rights”; in other words a mish-mash of interpretations taken from Articles and Amendments of the Constitution, and many Supreme Court Justices treat them with the utmost caution. The Right of Publicity and Name & Likeness rights concern the economic side of the legal treatment of privacy rights and intellectual property rights. They usually come up in tort claims either at common law or under a state statute. Many countries, such as France and England, place more emphasis on privacy rights and therefore offer broader protection.

Many states have adopted statutes that address name and likeness and privacy rights. Others rely on common law (causes of action that do not arise from statute but from judicial precedent). A right of publicity arises when an (typically famous) individual’s likeness is used in association with a product or service in commerce without that person’s authority. Damages for the improper use are typically determined by the profits earned as a result of associating the individual with the product or service.

Name and Likeness damages are a bit trickier, particularly if the individual in question isn’t famous or does not contribute to the profitability of the product or service. Typically damages will be equitablein other words, the injured party can try to get an injunction to prohibit continued use or distribution of the product or service while the name and likeness are still attached to the product or service.