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What Is the Difference between Copyright and Trademark?

Part of an application to register a trademark.
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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2014
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The difference between copyright and trademark is straightforward, though the terms are often used interchangeably and this can make the distinction somewhat muddied in common usage. A copyright is a type of intellectual property protection that covers works of art and similar things. This includes writing, illustrations, music, films, and just about any other artistic expression of ideas or concepts. A trademark protects a name brand or logo that is used in a commercial application to distinguish one company from another.

One of the easiest ways to distinguish between copyright and trademark, and to identify which is appropriate at any given time, is to consider the type of intellectual property being protected. If it is a work of art, then it is likely it is going to be protected by a copyright. On the other hand, if something is the name or symbol associated with a commercial business, then it will likely be trademarked to protect it. These are both forms of legal protection and are typically awarded by national governments, with many countries honoring and observing such protections awarded by another nation.

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The difference between copyright and trademark is typified by the separation of artistic works and commercial endeavors. Though there can be some apparent overlap in this type of categorization, the separation is often quite clear. For example, a book written by an author is under copyright protection as the intellectual property of that author. When the book is published by a company it also gains certain copyright protection for that work since it has purchased the rights to it, or to at least publish it, from the author.

This is where the difference between copyright and trademark can become quite clear. The name of that publisher and the logo it uses professionally are protected by trademark. A business will typically file for trademark protection from a national government. Once the protection is awarded, it will be able to use an appropriate mark to indicate its name and other identifiers as a trademark.

Nike®, for example, is a company that has registered its name as a trademark. This means the symbol ® is used to indicate the name of the company as a registered mark, rather than the ™ symbol that indicates a trademark that has not been registered. Similarly, the “swoosh” symbol often associated with Nike® is also protected by trademark.

Both a copyright and trademark are legally observed and protected, though proving the existence of either can sometimes be difficult. Technically, as soon as someone decides upon a name for a company or creates a logo for a business, that name or image is protected as a trademark. Registering the name or logo, however, ensures the trademark can be supported by establishing legal documentation of when it was created. Otherwise another company may claim it had the trademark first, and it can be quite difficult to establish ownership if neither business has registered the mark.

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