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Understanding Trademarks, Patents, and Copyrights

Without creators and inventors, the world as it is today could not exist, nor could human achievements continue to advance. When a person creates something, whether it's a new variety of plant, a work of art, or a piece of technology, it's called intellectual property. Most people want to not only receive credit for their creations but protect them as well. Unfortunately, if a person doesn't protect their work, others may claim and even unfairly profit from it. To prevent this from happening, it's important that people know what the different IP protections are so they can choose the best option for their situation.

What's the Difference Between a Copyright and a Trademark?

Two commonly known and often confused forms of legal protection for intellectual property are copyrights and trademarks. Although both are forms of protection, they are different in several ways. The first difference is in what they protect. A trademark is a type of protection for commercial goods, while copyright protects creative works.

Copyrights and trademarks also differ in who manages and registers them and in how long they last. The U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress registers copyrights, which last 70 years beyond the life of the creator. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office registers trademarks. Provided one continues to use and maintain their trademark, its protection will last forever.

What Does a Trademark Protect?

A trademark protects logos, drawings, numerals, or symbols that distinguish commercial goods. This includes specific color combinations that create brand recognition. It also protects slogans associated with a product or business.

What Does a Copyright Protect?

Copyright covers the rights of authors and creators of original creative works that are in a fixed and tangible form. With copyrights, the holder of the copyright is the only one who can use or reproduce the protected work. A copyright protects these works from being stolen, sold, or used by people who do not have permission from the creator or author. The works may be published or unpublished and include books, films, and works of art.

Computer programs and code, sound recordings, websites, and architecture also fall under copyright protection, as do music and movies. A work must be a close replica or the exact piece of work created by the author to be protected by copyright.

Although copyright protection is for the author or creator of a work, it doesn't apply to works that are made for hire. In these situations, the law considers the employer the copyright owner and the author of the work.

Although registration makes it easier to prove that one's work is their own, it is not completely necessary, as copyright protection goes into effect automatically the moment a work becomes tangible.

What Is a Patent?

Patents protect the things that a person invents. To receive a patent, an invention must be useful, new, innovative or non-obvious, and functional.

There are several patent types that a person may register for, including utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. A utility patent is the most common type in the U.S. Utility patents protect how a physical object works and how it is used. Design patents protect the appearance of an invention, but they do not protect its function, Plant patents are meant to protect newly created plant varieties. Utility and plant patents last up to 20 years, while design patents last for 15 years.

Because patents are territorial, a patent only applies in the country that granted it. For example, a patent that's granted in the United States will only be effective in the U.S. and its territories. As a result, one must file for patent protection in every country that they want their invention protected in. Each country has its own laws, including what types of inventions it will protect and requirements that must be met.