What Is the Difference Between a Trademark, a Copyright, and a Patent?

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Trademarks are signifiers of consumer goodwill associated with a product or service. Most trademarks are a word, a group of words, or a logo. Trademarks can be registered or (in countries that permit “common law” marks) unregistered, and can last for as long as the marks remain in use. A trademark owner can force a third party that adopts a mark that is similar enough to create consumer confusion to stop using the confusing mark.

Copyrights are the bundle of rights that protect original creative expressions. Copyright rights can exist in written text, images, sculptures, music, and more. Copyright exists automatically upon creation, and, in the United States, most new works are protected for 95 years from publication (for works created for an employer) or 120 years from creation (if unpublished), or, for works created by individuals, for the life of the creator plus 75 years. Registration may be required for some benefits, but is not required for the existence of a valid copyright. The copyright holder has a variety of exclusive rights, including the right to make and distribute copies (thus the name), the right to create derivative works (i.e. a sequel), to perform or display the copyrighted work in public, and more.

Utility patents protect useful, new (novel), non-obvious inventions. A utility patent only exists if registered, and then only after extensive examination. In the US, that examination is conducted by a patent attorney or patent agent at the US Patent & Trademark Office. If granted, the term of protection is 20 years from filing, with some adjustments due to prosecution time or other reasons. Patents give significant remedies against infringers practicing the same invention, including the opportunity for treble (triple) damages in the US.

Design patents protect novel, non-obvious, decorative, non-functional designs. A design patent is valid for 14 years from the date of issue.