What’s the Difference Between Trademark, Copyright, and Patent?
Intellectual Property 101One of the most common questions I get about intellectual property is regarding the differences among trademark, copyright, and patents. Each area of law protects a different type of intellectual property, and each has a different set of rights and requirements. The purpose of this article is to lay out the fundamentals so that anyone who reads this can have a basic understanding of how each one works.
The main purpose of trademark law is to protect people from passing off their merchandise or services as yours. Trademark law makes it illegal for others to slap your logo onto their merchandise; what is often called making a “knock-off”.
Trademarks help consumers determine the source of the goods they purchase. You would hate to buy some Louis Vuitton merchandise only to find out it’s fake—trademark law works to protect both the consumers and the merchants.
Because of this limited scope, trademarks only apply to words, names, symbols, or any combination thereof, which are used to identify and distinguish goods. 
At this point, it is probably important to note that words, names, symbols, or any combination thereof, which are used to identify and distinguish services, are likewise protected as “service marks.” But it is fairly common to hear people say, “trademark” when referring to either. But I digress…
A trademark or service mark is meant only for business. People can’t protect names, phrases, slogans, etc., unless the use is in connection with a commercial purpose (But see “intent to use trademark registration”).
Trademark infringement only occurs when someone uses another’s trademark in commerce, where it is likely to cause confusion to the consumer. For example, putting an Armani logo on a non-Armani suit would likely cause a customer to believe the suit to be an authentic Armani. On the other hand, a car mechanic that states in an ad that he fixes “Volkswagens” is probably not causing any consumer confusion.
Trademark Duration: However long the mark is being used in commerce.
The purpose of copyright is to protect works of authorship, which includes the following categories:
- Literary works,
- Musical works, including any accompanying words;
- Dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
- Pantomimes and choreographic works;
- Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
- Motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
- Sound recordings; and
- Architectural works.
One common copyright myth is that copyright can protect ideas. We might all have a friend who thinks a TV show stole his or her idea. And if only he or she had run to the copyright office and copyrighted the idea before the show used it… right? Unfortunately, it does not work this way. The copyright act is very clear, “[i]n no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea.”  In order for a song, story, or any other idea to qualify for copyright protection, it must be put down in tangible form. That could mean writing a story down, recording a song, or filming a movie. Copyright protection is for those ideas that have been set down in some way that allows other people to perceive it.
Copyright Duration: Generally, the entire life of the author, plus an additional 70 years. (But works made for hire, or by anonymous authors, or before January 1, 1978 are subject to different terms). 
When Piers Morgan asked Supreme Court Justice, Anton Scalia, what his most difficult case was, he replied, “it would probably be a patent case.”  Patent law is arguably one of those most complex and difficult areas of law to work in. Often, patent lawyers have advanced degrees in engineering and other sciences.
The purpose of a patent is to protect inventions or discoveries. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) designates three types of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. Utility patents are for inventions or discoveries of new and useful processes, machines, article of manufactures, or composition of matters, or any new and useful improvement thereof. Design patents are for inventions or discoveries of new, original, and ornamental designs for articles of manufacture. And lastly, a plant patent is for inventions or discoveries dealing with asexually reproducing any distinct and new variety of plant.
In order to obtain a patent, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) requires the invention to be disclosed. Basically, if you want the USPTO to protect your invention, you have to tell them how it works. This can raise serious issues for some. For instance, Coca-Cola’s treasured “secret formula” has yet to be patented. By choosing not to get a patent, Coca-Cola avoids having to disclose their formula and avoids other companies using it once the patent expires. Patents protect inventors and help promote innovation in technology.
Patent Duration: Design patents last 14 years, while utility and plant patents generally last 20 years (But works made before June 8, 1995 may be subject to different terms). 
Trademark, Copyright, and Patents Can Overlap
Just because trademark, copyright, and patent protections are distinct from one another, does not mean they can’t overlap. Consider this example:
Many of us have seen this Jaguar hood ornament. These cool car badges indicate the source of the car, thus making them subject to trademark protection. But, since the hood ornament is also a work of authorship (i.e. a statue), it may very well be under copyright protection as well.
Though both trademark and copyright protections may apply, they serve different interests. Here, trademark serves to protect the Jaguar manufacturer and its consumers from likely confusion in the market place, while copyright protects the Jaguar statue as a work of authorship, preventing unauthorized copying for instance. So, while a car mechanic might be allowed, under trademark law, to state that he fixes Jaguars, using the Jaguar hood ornament in the ad may be copyright infringement.
If you think the world of intellectual property seems abstract and theoretical, you’re not alone. Protecting “intellectual” property is often complex and difficult, but a basic understanding could save you big bucks and help protect your work or business. Till next time, take care of yourselves.
The content on this website is not written by lawyers, and is not meant to be taken as legal advice in a particular case or matter.
 15 U.S.C.A. § 1127  17 U.S.C. §102(b)  17 U.S.C. §302  Piers Morgan Tonight, CNN 2013  http://www.uspto.gov/patents/index.jsp  http://www.uspto.gov/inventors/patents.jsp
Featured Article Image
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mr_Pipo_Think_03_texrays.svg / CC BY-SA 3.0
Jaguar Hood Ornament