What’s the Difference between Copyrights and Trademarks

The difference between a trademark and a copyright is easy to remember by looking at the reason each exists. The purpose of a trademark is to protect the consumer. The purpose of a copyright is to protect the artist.


A trademark is a source identifier; that is, a word, phrase, or symbol that indicates the source of goods or services. McDonald’s identifies the source of fast food. A red bulls-eye identifies Target, a source of retail services. The word “Budweiser” identifies the source of a certain beer brewed in Colorado.

Marking products with source identifiers protects consumers by saving them time and effort during shopping. Using a Budweiser beer drinker as an example, without the source identifier – the Budweiser brand – on the product, the beer drinker would have a tough time finding the beer he loves. In fact, he might have to taste-test every beer in the cooler before he recognizes it.

With trademarks, the beer drinker walks into the store, picks up a six-pack of Bud, and is out the door again in an efficient transaction. Trademarks protect consumers by making shopping more efficient.

Because trademark rights are tied to the degree with which the consumer associates the trademark with a product in the marketplace, trademark rights can cease to exist if a company stops using its trademark. As the trademark fades from the consumer’s memory, so the strength of the trademark fades in the eye of the law.


A copyright, on the other hand, is entirely different. A copyright is a protection granted by the government to prevent others from copying an author’s or artist’s expression of creativity, be it a book, a song, a sculpture, a film, a painting, etc.

The thinking behind the protection is the notion that if anyone can download a free copy of a popular new song, why would anyone ever pay for one? And if no one would ever pay for a copy of a song, why should a songwriter bother writing songs that the public would enjoy? And without music, where would humanity be?

With copyright protection, a songwriter can charge others a fee for a license to make a copy of the song, or for a license to play or perform the song. Thus copyright protection encourages participation in the arts and discourages “free riders” who would try to make ill gain off the hard work of someone else. The best known example of successful music licensing is iTunes, where music lovers willingly pay license fees to download millions of popular songs and videos.  

Copyright protection lasts for the author’s lifetime plus seventy years. With this extended protection, a creator can pass her copyright on to two generations, more or less, of her heirs. Copyrights can be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office; however, the right exists without registration, and many copyrights are never registered. A copyright owner who wishes to sue for copyright infringement should register the copyright before filing suit, because the penalties for violating a registered copyright are greater than the penalties for filing one that is not registered.


In conclusion, trademarks and copyrights are both intellectual property, but that is where their similarities end. A trademark helps a consumer efficiently identify goods and services in the marketplace. A copyright helps discourage others from copying artistic works. Both are valuable protections that can be used to the benefit of their owners.  

For more information, visit the U.S. PTO website, http://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/basics/index.jsp, or the U.S. Copyright Office website, http://www.copyright.gov/, or iTunes, at http://www.itunes.com.