What’s the Difference Between a Copyright, Patent, and Trademark?

A few times a week, I find myself explaining the difference between the three most common types of intellectual property: copyrights, patents, and trademarks.

Copyrights protect original expressions of ideas – and are most often granted in written works, musical compositions, and film or video. You get a copyright by “fixing” your expression in a medium – writing it down or recording it, for example. Copyright doesn’t protect the underlying idea, and it does not protect against simultaneous or independent creation. If two people independently come up with similar expressions, they are both entitled to a copyright and neither is infringing the other. Copyrights are granted for a limited term: generally the life of the author plus seventy years.

Patents are granted for new and non-obvious articles of manufacture, compositions of matter, machines, and methods of doing things. In order to be patentable, these inventions cannot be found in nature, and must be more than a mere idea. The first inventor to file a patent application will be entitled to the patent. Patents even protect against independent creation: if I own a patent, I can sue for patent infringement even if someone came up with the same method on their own. Patents are granted for a term of 20 years from the earliest claimed filing date of the patent.

Trademarks are granted for identifications of the source of goods and services. There is no inherent term-length for a trademark – you can keep it as long as you use it in commerce to identify the same goods or services. Multiple companies can use the same mark for different good and services (think, Delta Faucets, Delta Airlines, and Delta Dental). Generally, the first person to use a trademark for certain goods and services gets the rights to the trademark.

In slightly oversimplified terms – copyrights protect art; patents protect science; and, trademarks protect company names.