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A Guide to Trademarks, Copyrights, and Patents for Websites and Beyond

Owning a patent, copyright, or trademark for intellectual property is valuable to people who create things. Each protects the person who owns its because it prevents other people or businesses from using the protected creation for their gain (versus the creator's gain). It's also important that teachers, students, and the general public understand what trademarks, copyrights, and patents are and the protections they grant to the people who own them, as many people who violate these protections do so unknowingly. Similarly, many people don't know that there are works that they can use, either in a limited capacity or freely.


A trademark can protect certain kinds of intellectual property, including designs, logos, signs, or other specific expressions that are distinguishable from others. People, businesses, organizations, and all other legal entities can hold a trademark. The trademarked property can be used by its owner on labels, packaging, signs, or products. The very first law concerning trademarks was enacted in Britain in 1266. Modern trademark laws date back to the end of the 19th century. France was the first country in modern times to enact an organized, comprehensive trademark system.


Copyright protects all creators of inventive work. The moment creative expression takes a physical form, the copyright goes into effect. Anything from a drawing to a poem, a journal entry, a sculpture, a letter, or an app is granted copyright upon its creation. The purpose of copyright is to protect creators' right to sole ownership of the things they create. Only the creator has the right to make copies of the work, unless they grant that privilege to other people or sell the rights to the work. Copyright also applies to performing the work, displaying it, and distributing it. Only the person who created the work, their representative, or anyone they sold the rights to can grant legal permission for these things. The digital age has made it more difficult for creators to protect their rights, since it is now easier than ever for other people to copy or distribute creative works.

Creative Commons

A Creative Commons (CC) license allows for the distribution of a work with an active copyright. Creators grant a CC license so that other artists can use, share, perform, or otherwise work with the original work of the creator. A creator can grant CC licenses in limited ways. For example, they can grant them only to people who will not try to make money off of the use of their work. A nonprofit organization based in the United States introduced CC licenses in 2002. Since then, there have been updates to this system, which is now recognized by the U.S. judicial system and other authorities around the world.

Public Domain

For various reasons, not all creative work has active copyright protection. The main reason this occurs is because the copyright has expired, was waived by the creator, doesn't apply to that specific work, or was created before copyright laws existed. For example, copyright laws don't apply to William Shakespeare's plays: They are in the public domain. This means that they can be freely performed and other artists and writers can create new works based on the plays and characters Shakespeare created. Recently, some early works by Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald have seen their copyrights expire, and they now are in the public domain. Novels based on Fitzgerald's characters in The Great Gatsby began being published as soon as Gatsby's copyright expired. However, it's important to remember that works can be subject to copyright laws on a country-by-country basis.


A patent protects certain works, like inventions, by granting the inventor exclusive rights for a specific period of time. Unlike copyright, though, patents are not automatically granted upon the creation of the invention. Instead, the creator must specifically file for a patent and disclose certain aspects of the invention to the government entity that oversees patents. Each patent application is usually allowed to claim various parts of the invention as separate and original creations deserving their own patent protection. It is usually up to the patent-holder to protect their patent and sue anyone who threatens their patent in civil court.

Fair Use

Fair use is a United States legal doctrine that allows for some limited use of works under active copyright without needing to get express consent from the person or organization that holds the copyright. Fair use exists to balance the interests of the person holding the copyright with the interests of the general public. For example, quoting a section of copyrighted text is permissible under fair-use laws, and so are works that parody an original creation.