Copyright Law
Legal Definitions
Intellectual Property

What is the difference between a copyright and trademark?



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Todd L Ross

Both copyrights and trademarks protect intellectual property, but they differ in several significant ways:

Usage - Per the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a copyright protects any original work “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” That could include books, poems, business reports, and any other intellectual work. The copyright holder also holds exclusive right to produce derivative works—if a new songwriter wants to sample an original composition, they’ll have to get permission from the composition’s copyright holder.

Trademarks, on the other hand, protect “words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish goods and services from those manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of the goods.” A company might trademark their logo, for instance, preventing competitors from using similar logos.

To put that more simply: A music label might trademark its logo and brand name, but it would have to copyright its music.

Length - Trademarks do not expire after a certain number of years; they could technically last forever, provided that the owner continues to use them. That’s not the case for copyrights.

The exact length of protection for a copyright varies depending on a number of factors, but generally, works created after Jan. 1, 1978 have an automatic copyright for the life of the author and an additional 70 years.

The Application Process - Copyrights, technically, are automatic. All original works are copyrighted as soon as they’re created. But the copyright needs to be registered in order for the owner to pursue litigation. In other words, if you write a book, you’ve got a copyright, but if someone steals it, you’ll need a copyright registration in order to sue them. Copyright registration is a fairly straightforward process and can be completed online for a small fee.

The trademark application is more involved, and most businesses give the task to an attorney (in fact, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office essentially recommends getting an attorney’s help on their application page). The trademark must not be in use elsewhere, and the applicant must declare a basis for filing—essentially, they have to explain how they’ll use the mark and/or how they’ve used it in the past.

Hopefully, this information is helpful in determining whether a copyright or trademark is necessary. We’re not attorneys, so if you’re considering either, contact a qualified lawyer to get the best possible advice for your situation.