Copyrights, trademarks, and patents are all forms of legal protection provided by a governmental entity to inventors, musicians, businesses, and many others. Each offers a unique set of rights and protections, but differ in what they cover, as well as how long those protections last. In general, a copyright protects written or artistic works, like books, plays, musical compositions, and paintings; trademarks protect brand names and symbols, like logos; and patents protect inventions, including processes, devices, designs, and even plants.
A copyright protects a wide range of creative or intellectual work. This includes written works as well as dramatic, musical, and artistic creations. Some items covered by copyright include movies, songs, books, sculptures, and computer software. A copyright gives the creator exclusive rights to the material; typically, this includes the right to perform or display the work publicly as well as produce and sell copies of the material. The copyright owner may also import or export the work, transmit it through radio or video, and decide who else may perform or financially profit from it.
In most cases, a work does not have to be published to be copyrighted. Depending on where the work is produced, it may not even have to be registered. In the US, for example, a work is protected by copyright the moment that it is created. Registering the creation with a copyright office is often recommended, however, as it can help clarify any future disputes as to ownership.
Though a copyright protects a form of expression, it does not affect the subject matter of the work. In other words, if someone wrote an article about a new car, the text of that article would be copyrighted, preventing someone else from using those exact words in the same order. This does not prevent others from writing their own original article about the new car, however, or from using or making the car themselves.
The length of time that copyright protection lasts may vary based on jurisdiction. In the US, the term is based in part on the type of work involved; for most works produced after 1978, it lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. Throughout most of the world, the term granted is usually the life of the creator, plus an additional 50 or 70 years. After the term expires, the work typically becomes public domain, which means it is accessible by the general public without having to pay a fee or request permission from the copyright holder. For example, the works of William Shakespeare are in the public domain, so anyone can publish them in book form or make a movie based on one of his plays without asking for permission.
A copyright is generally, technically territorial, or only good within the country of origin. Most nations, however, have agreements with other countries to honor each others' copyrights. Not every country shares such relationships, however, and a few countries provide little or no protection for works produced in other nations.
Trademarks and Service Marks
A trademark is used to protect a word, symbol, device, or name that is used in commerce. The purpose of a trademark is to distinguish the products of one source, such as a company, from those of another. Although an individual can trademark something, the are usually applied for by businesses or legal entities. At its most basic, a trademark may be thought of as protection for a brand name. A service mark is essentially the same as a trademark, but applies to services rather than products. In general, registration of a trademark remains valid in the US as long as the holder continues to file the required documentation every 10 years.
One common reason that a company might trademark a word or symbol is to prevent other companies from selling a comparable product using a very similar word or symbol as the brand. If the brand name or logo are not easy to distinguish, a consumer might confuse the product from one company with that of the other. A trademark does not, however, prevent other people or businesses from producing the same product or services under a different mark.
For example, the Nike® "swoosh" is a trademarked symbol that identifies products sold under the Nike brand; no other company that sells the same products — running shoes, athletic apparel, etc. — can use a similar logo. Reebok®, however, can sell shoes and athletic gear under its own brand.
A trademark does not necessarily have to be registered to be valid; in the US, an individual or company can claim rights over the use of a word or symbol in commerce simply by using it. Often, companies will add a ™ to a brand name to establish ownership, and while they are waiting for a registered trademark (®) to be approved. Registering a mark with the US government gives the owner additional benefits, however, including the right to bring a lawsuit in federal court against another company it feels is infringing on the mark, the right to use the registered trademark symbol in commerce, and establishing a basis to register the trademark in other countries.
There are no international trademarks. Owners of trademarks in the US who want to protect their marks in other countries must apply for that protection. There are registration systems, such as the Community Trademark System (CTM), which covers European Union member states, and the Madrid System for the International Registration of Trademarks, which allow a trademark seeker to use one basic application to apply to register the trademark in any or all of the nations that are members of the system. Applying through these or other systems does not guarantee that the mark will be approved, however, and not all countries are members of such systems.
A patent is a form of legal protection for an invention. They afford inventors with property rights that are intended to prevent anyone else from making, using, or selling the patented invention. There are three types of patents: utility, plant, and design.
- Utility patents cover those who invent new — or develop a new and useful improvement on — processes and machines, as well as those who discover new compositions of matter. This is what most people think of when they think of a patent; it includes things like machines, an original series of steps for making something, and synthesized molecules and chemicals.
- Plant patents are designated for those who discover or invent, and reproduce a new variety of plant. Someone who develops a new distinct variety of apple, for example, could apply for a plant patent.
- Design patents are reserved for creators of new ornamental designs for functional items. This could include the design of a piece of furniture or a water bottle.
Patent protection lasts for a limited amount of time, usually 20 years from the date of the application, and is only effective in the country in which it was filed. The application must include a detailed description of how the invention works. Since a patent is considered "property," it may be bought, sold, mortgaged, or licensed by the owner.
How to Get a Copyright, Trademark, or Patent
The process for getting a copyright, trademark, or patent varies by country, as do the requirements for registration. Registration is not always required for copyrights and trademarks, although in both cases, there may be benefits to doing so. In most cases, an applicant must file the appropriate paperwork with a specific governmental agency, some of which allow for online filing. In the US, trademarks and patents can be registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), while copyrights can be registered through the United States Copyright Agency. Usually, the agency will charge a fee for filing; typically, these fees and the waiting periods for approval or rejection are higher for trademarks and patents, since the USPTO conducts a substantive review of those applications to avoid potential conflicts.