Intellectual Property Law Differentiating Patent Trademark Copyright Protection

Patents, trademarks and copyrights are different kinds of intellectual property protected by U.S. law. These protections include federal rights, international protections, and common-law rights of action should any kind of intellectual property be stolen or damaged.

The tricky part of intellectual property law is that the property is intangible, meaning it is property that has value, but cannot be seen or touched. Even though they aren’t tangible items, they are valuable and these laws protect the intellectual property of the owner who came up with the concept.

While patents, trademarks and copyright fall under the blanket term intellectual property, there are significant differences between the three categories of intellectual property.

Here’s a general rundown of what each term means and how it differs from other kinds of intellectual property:


Patents are legal rights assigned to the creator of an invention by the U.S. Government. A patent ensures the ideas behind the invention are legally entitled to the rightful owner who created it.

The term is limited to 20 years after the patent application has been filed. During this time no one but the owner can make, use or sell this invention in the U.S. or bring the product into the U.S. for sale.

Another important thing to understand about patents is the invention has to be original, useful and new in order to be approved. It is also worthy to know that there are fees associated with patents and if these fees are not paid, the owner forfeits his patent protection.


Trademarks are used in business and are represented by the words, pictures, designs, symbols, or any other recognizable graphic, sound or words associated with a brand name. They identify any kind of goods where people who see/hear their trademark instantly knows the brand.

Logos are one of the most common forms of trademarks, which are created to make a product (or service) instantly recognizable. In order to be accepted as a trademark, the product must move interstate. A condition of trademarks is the mark must be unique and non-generic or else it cannot be trademarked (a good Court case to help illustrate this aspect of trademark law is Harley Davidson v. Grottanelli).

Trademark rights are specific. They are enforced to prevent others from using the same or similar mark, which may confuse consumers to the point they have difficulty differentiating the products. This, however, does not mean other companies cannot sell the same goods; they just have to come up with their own trademark to identify their products.


Copyright protection gives authors and photographers legal protection under U.S. Law. This includes authors of books, articles, songs, movies, dances, or any other kind of written arrangement or words (or in the case of music or dance, the markings which illustrate how songs or movement goes).

Essentially, copyright protects the expression of ideas, not necessarily the idea, because different people can have the same idea but may express themselves differently.

Copyright protection lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years. One thing to note, businesses can copyright the expression of ideas generated by employees because the work was done under their employment and the workers were paid to do the work. These are structured a bit differently as copyright protection is 120 years or 95 years after the publication of the work; the shorter length of time applies for this kind of copyright.

Copyright protection gives the owner control over their expression of ideas. This includes production, distribution, permissions, performances (public) and open display; for any of these to happen, the owner has the right to enforce conveyed permission.

Intellectual Property Law is serious business in the U.S. Owners of patents, trademarks and copyright do have recourse through the law and to obtain monetary compensation for damages incurred.