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What's the difference between a patent, copyright and trademark?

Chances are that you have heard the terms "patent," "copyright" and "trademark" thrown around, but you might not understand what each one means and how they are different. Each one can offer protection to small businesses but they are used for different reasons.


Patents allow inventors to protect their inventions from being sold, made or used by others for a period of time. Patents have to be registered with the federal government.

There are three types of patents: utility, design and plant. Utility patents are the most common and the designer must prove that the patent is beneficial and operable. These patents apply to new chemicals, processes and machines. The protection on utility and plant patents lasts 20 years while a design patent lasts for 14 years.

Some examples of inventions that are patentable include: drugs, computer software and hardware, medical devices, furniture designs, clothing designs, musical instruments, chemical formulas and genetically-engineered plants.


Copyrights allow creators to protect their "original works" such as books, songs (written or recorded),pieces of artwork, photographs, television broadcasts and even live performances.

Under the United States Copyright Act, the owner of the copyright is the only one who can do (or permit someone else to do) the following:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Create derivative works
  • Sell copies of the work
  • Perform the work in public; and
  • Display the work in public


Trademarks protect words, names, symbols or devices that are used to represent and distinguish goods. Trademarks can prevent others from using a "mark" that is similar enough to confuse people, but it can't stop others from making the same goods and selling them under a different mark.

Trademarks don't need to be registered in order to hold the rights to the mark. So long as a person is using a mark in a legitimate business or commercial setting they can establish the rights to the mark. However, you can only use the official trademark symbol after the mark has been registered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Patents, copyrights and trademarks are three very important parts of intellectual property law that serve unique purposes. If your business, idea, invention or work is in need of protection, talk to an experienced business law attorney in your area for more information. 

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