Intellectual property law encompasses a wide range of practices. Trademarks, copyrights, and patents are three very different types of law, yet each falls under the intellectual property umbrella. Each area is nuanced and can be complicated for lawyers and non-lawyers alike. However, there is a simple way to think of the differences between them:
- trademarks are for businesses,
- copyrights are for artists, and
- patents are for inventors.
Trademarks for Distinction
Trademarks are used by entrepreneurs and businesses to distinguish their products from others in the marketplace. Trademarks can be governed by state or federal law. However, federal law offers more protection. Trademark law governs the use of a word, phrase, symbol, product, shape or logo that identifies goods and services. A trademark helps consumers distinguish one good or service from another. Further, for a trademark to be registered, the mark must be used “in commerce,” meaning the mark must have been used across state lines. Once the mark has been used “in commerce,” a registrant is free to use the mark with the ® symbol. Additionally, a trademark can enjoy protection against trademark infringement indefinitely, as long as the owner continues to pay to register the trademark.
Copyrights for Creative Works
Often confused with trademark law, copyright law is reserved for the creatives. Artists, musicians, composers, and the like enjoy protection under this type of intellectual property law. The United States copyright law protects “original works of ownership,” fixed in a tangible medium. These works can be literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic. Differing from trademark law, copyright law applies to published and unpublished works. Also differing from trademarks, copyrights have an expiration date, in other words, when the work becomes “public use.” This typically happens 70 years after the death of the author, absent exceptions for “works for hire” and copyrights that were registered before 1978.
Patents, the Friend of Invention
Lastly, patents are mainly used by inventors. The three types of patents governed by patent law are utility, design, or plant . For an invention to be patented, it must be new, useful, and not obvious. Patent law is a very complex form of intellectual property; it involves engineers, scientists, and mathematicians to complete and create a patented work. For example, machines, seeds, and even vaccines can be patented. With the shortest length of coverage of any of the laws under the intellectual property umbrella, patents are only under the sole ownership of the inventor for twenty years from the filing date of the earliest patent application before the patent is deemed “public use.”
Intellectual property can be very cumbersome, whether it be a trademarks, copyrights, or patents. Each area involves different rules, requirements, and time considerations. This basic overview should help anyone in discovering which avenue to pursue in order to protect their intellectual property.