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What's the difference between trademarks, patents and copyrights?

Often in our discussions of intellectual property, we focus on the intricacies rather than on the basic concepts. Many times, however, small business owners and entrepreneurs need help identifying what type of intellectual property they possess before they take steps to protect it.

The three main types of intellectual property are trademarks, copyrights and patents. Let's take a closer look at each of these and discuss how they offer protection to valuable ideas and creations.


According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), "A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others." This can include brand names, logos and slogans. 

Trademark registration is not required, as you can establish "common law" rights simply by using it in your marketplace. Federal registration has its benefits, however, including public notice of your ownership of that particular mark. Official registration can last indefinitely, provided you file the required paperwork and pay renewal fees at regular intervals.


A copyright protects your ownership of individual works of authorship. The USPTO states this can include "literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture."

The duration for copyright protection typically lasts the life of the author/creator, plus 70 years. For anonymous works and work for-hire, the copyright lasts 95 years from the publication date or 120 years from the creation date, depending on which is shorter.


A patent is a property right granted to an invention, such as machines, manufactured articles, industrial processes, and chemical compositions. The USPTO grants this protection for a limited time "in exchange for public disclosure of the invention."

Protection duration times depend on the type of patent that has been granted. A design patent is good for 15 years from the date of issuance. Utility patents and plant patents are valid for 20 years from the date the application was filed.

Contact an experienced attorney to help determine what type of intellectual property protection you need and assist you through the registration process.

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