Trademarks, Copyrights, and Patents: What You Should Know About Each Type of Intellectual Property

There is much confusion around the terms trademark, copyright, and patent, and it can be challenging to understand the differences between these various forms of intellectual property rights. If you are the author or creator of a work of art, piece of literature, concept, invention, unique name, design, or symbol, then you should know the differences among the terms trademark, copyright, and patent. In the United States, all three of these designations are specifically defined under the law, including the Constitution in some instances. Below is more information that will help you make these important distinctions as you move forward with the process of protecting your intellectual property.


A trademark is a legally protected word, group of words, or symbol that designates a particular product. A lesser-known term, but one that is closely related, is service mark; this is an identical legal protection except that it designates a service instead of an item.

In the United States, trademarks can be created by their owner, and there is no requirement under the law that they be recorded by any governmental authority to be valid. However, trademarks must be continuously used and vigorously defended to remain in force; otherwise, they will be deemed to have expired and will be considered available to the general public for unlimited use. This process is called genericization, and there are numerous high-profile examples of how this has occurred: aspirin, escalator, and thermos are all products that were once trademarked.

Registration of a trademark is optional, but it does confer various benefits for the registrant, such as official recognition and visibility. The cost of registration is between $275 and $375, but that does not include legal fees if an attorney is retained to assist with the process.


A copyright is a parallel protection to a trademark except that it applies to written work, art, film, music, and other original, creative expressions. Just like trademarks, copyrights do not require registration to be valid; the mere creation of an original work causes the copyright to come into existence. However, unlike trademarks, copyrights will expire within a definite period of time, the length of which depends upon specific factors concerning the work's date of creation and authorship. Once a copyright expires, the work enters the public domain and may be used without restriction.

As with trademarks, you may register a copyright with the United States Copyright Office in order to obtain official recognition and have an additional legal safeguard in case of infringement by another person. Registration of copyrights can be obtained for as little as $35 if the registration is performed electronically.


A legal protection for inventions is known as a patent, and it only protects those ideas that are made available to the public through patent registration. Unlike trademarks or copyrights, patents do not come into existence on their own; an application for a patent must be submitted to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and the submission will be reviewed against existing patents to ensure that it is an original invention. This process of searching can be expensive and time-consuming, and it is strongly suggested that applicants hire an attorney for assistance, especially if the invention is complex.

Patents have the shortest lifespan of any intellectual property classification, as they expire in between 14 and 20 years, depending on the specific type of patent and when it was issued. After a patent expires, the invention is freely replicable and may be marketed by anyone who wishes to make and sell it. However, it is important to keep in mind that patented inventions are also often trademarked; that means the actual name of the product may not be used by a competitor, even if the contents or construction of the product are identical.

For further assistance, talk to a law office such as Mohajerian A Professional Law Corporation.