Difference between Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights

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There are different types of intellectual property law. Patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets are the main types. Some products can be covered by multiple forms of intellectual property. This is a brief guide to help you understand the difference between these main types.

A patent is a grant by a government to an inventor, conferring the right to exclude others for a limited time from making, using or selling the invention throughout a country. It is a document in which the invention is fully described and the scope of the invention defined.

Utility patents are granted for invention of new and useful processes, machines, manufactures, compositions of matter or any new and useful improvement thereof. U.S. patents used to run for a term of 17 years from the dates they are granted. U.S. patent applications filed today have a term of 20 years from filing. Each country has its own patent law.

Design patents cover the external ornamentation of a product and provide weaker protection than utility patents, but are much less expensive to obtain. They are used, for example, to cover automobile body panel designs and furniture designs.

A trademark is any word, name, symbol, or device adopted and used by a manufacturer or seller to identify the source of the goods or services and distinguish them from those supplied by others. A service mark is a form of trademark that applies to services.

The primary function of a trademark is to indicate origin. However, trademarks also serve to guarantee the quality of the goods or services and, through advertising, serve to create and maintain demand. Rights in a trademark are acquired by use or applying for a federal trademark registration before use. Use of the trademark must ultimately occur, and must continue if the rights so acquired are to be preserved. Each country has its own trademark law.

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of a country to authors of original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and other works. Protection is available to both published and unpublished works.

Additional Resources

Patentsusa contains a gude to patents

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

U.S. Copyright Office

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