What are the Differences between Copyrights, Patents, and Trademarks?

If you have never studied intellectual property it can be very confusing to understand the differences between copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Each is a form of protection issued by the government for someone’s creation. However each form of protection protects different things.

If you wrote a book, made a video, or performed a song, you should be looking for copyright protection. Copyrights do not protect ideas, but protect original expressions. For example, J.K. Rowling’s expression of characters and plot in Harry Potter earned her a copyright.

Patents exist to protect an inventor’s ideas. If you have designed a new chair, developed a better method to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or created a new chemical compound, you should seek a patent. J.K Rowling does not have a patent on Harry Potter because she did not invent anything new; books already exist. If she invented a flying broomstick and could make instructions to build a prototype then she could receive a patent on her flying broomstick.

If you want to protect a slogan, logo, or company name, you should apply for a trademark. A trademark includes any word, phrase, symbol, device, or any combination of them used to identify or distinguish the goods of one seller from another. J.K Rowling does not have a trademark in the actual Harry Potter novels since they are more than just a word or phrase to represent her stories, they ARE the stories. However she does own a trademark in the name Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows because it distinguishes her story from other authors’ stories.

You register all three forms of protection with the United States government. However it is only mandatory for patents. If you do not apply for a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office(USPTO) you will not have any protection. You can still protect your copyrights and trademarks without registering them but registration does come with additional benefits. Such benefits include increased damages for infringement and greater protection. Patents and trademark applications are sent to the USPTO while copyright applications are sent to the United States Copyright Office.

Each form of protection starts at different times and ends at different times. Copyright protection starts as soon as you “fix” your work. This includes writing it down, capturing it on video, or carving it into stone. Once a work is fixed the copyright generally lasts for the lifetime of the author plus another 70 years after the author’s death. Patent protection does not start until you receive a patent from the USPTO, but only if you do not sell your invention before applying for a patent. Patents typically last 20 years from the filing date. Trademarks have limited protection without registration, but full protection begins when you register. Registrations also go to the USPTO and protections can last indefinitely as long as your mark is still in use. The trademark must be renewed every 10 years.

United States patents are effective only within the United States, US territories, and US possessions. The same is true for US trademarks. You can apply for patents and trademarks in the European Union or in other countries to protect your works in those places. Copyrights are protected in the United States and in countries which the United States signed treaties with.

This chart highlights the different aspects of United States intellectual property protection.




What does it protect?



Identification of goods

Examples of protected items

Books, movies, architecture

Physical inventions, software, plants

Logos, slogans, company names

Where to register

US Copyright Office

US Patent and Trademark Office

US Patent and Trademark Office

Do I have to register?




Length of protection

Generally life of author plus 70 years

Generally 20 years

Indefinite with use and renewal every ten years

Where am I protected?

US plus treaty countries



If you have any questions about whether a copyright, patent, or trademark is right for you contact Stone Law at 732-444-6303 or leave us a message on our website.