People who are unfamiliar with the various forms of intellectual property protection often use terms like “patent,” “trademark” and “copyright” almost interchangeably. In reality, these are three distinct forms of protection, each of which is designed to defend your rights to a specific type of intellectual property.
Understanding the difference is critical when you want to ensure that you have the right to fully defend your intellectual property. An intellectual property attorney can provide customized guidance and advice in your unique situation. Nonetheless, it is possible to describe here the three major forms of intellectual property protection.
What Is a Patent?
A patent protects a new invention, which may be a machine, a product, a process or a chemical composition. It is possible to obtain a patent on the design or appearance of an item just as it is possible to patent a new plant species.
A patent does not grant the holder the right to manufacture or sell their invention. Instead, it gives them the right to exclude others from using their proprietary innovation. Thus, if a patent holder notices that a competitor is selling a product that infringes on their patent rights, the patent holder may sue the alleged infringer.
Patents are only valid for a finite period of time. An invention is protected by a utility patent, which is valid for 20 years from the filing date of the patent application. A design patent is valid for only 14 years from its filing date.
While the patent is in force, it is possible for the owner to license it to others who may manufacture, sell or otherwise use the patented subject matter. Patent owners also may sell their rights to another party.
What Is a Trademark?
Trademarks may take many forms, including a single word or an entire phrase. A trademark registration also may cover a design, symbol or a combination of text and a design.
The strongest trademarks are unique and distinctive. Their primary purpose is to identify the source of the goods or services on which they are used. For example, when people see the famous Nike “swoosh” on a pair of shoes, they are immediately able to identify the footwear as coming from Nike.
In the U.S., trademarks are registered for particular goods and services that the owner must identify in their application for registration. Use of the mark in connection with the goods or services must begin in U.S. commerce before a registration can be obtained.
Accordingly, a company or individual may apply for a trademark registration that covers a wide variety of goods and services such as restaurant services, t-shirts and music performances. Before a registration can be obtained, the owner must demonstrate that the mark is actually being used on all of these goods and services. If they decide not to use their trademark on t-shirts, then these goods must be deleted from the application before the mark can proceed to registration.
U.S. trademarks are renewable in perpetuity for 10-year periods. Every 10 years, the owner must submit fees and proof that the mark is still being used in commerce.
What Is a Copyright?
A copyright is used to protect any work of original authorship. While most people understand that a book is copyrighted, they may be more surprised to learn that a painting, sculpture, choreographic work, photograph, movie or software code also may be protected with a copyright.
Copyright protection is automatic in the U.S. As soon as a creative expression is captured in some tangible form, it is copyrighted. However, it is further possible to register the material with the U.S. Copyright Office. Doing so provides the owner with additional means of protecting their original work.
This means that the author has control over reproductions of their work as well as any derivative works. Any public performance or display of their work may only be pursued with the author’s permission. Failure to obtain such permission may lead to litigation.
Typically, the term of a registered copyright is the lifetime of the work’s author plus an additional 70 years.
Which Type of IP Protection Should You Pursue?
If you are an inventor, innovator or entrepreneur, then you may need to pursue one or more forms of IP protection. A software developer could copyright the code on a new program, obtain a trademark registration for the software’s name and get a patent on a process within the program.
Working with a qualified intellectual property attorney is the best way to ensure that your rights are sufficiently protected by patents, trademarks and copyrights.
Author: Jeff Williams
Jeff Williams is an experienced mechanical engineer and lawyer that consults closely with clients in a strait forward and clear manner. He brings a particular set of strengths and unique perspectives to the firm.
Jeff received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Arizona State University in 2005. He was an engineer for a number of years at a number of large corporations before pursuing his law degree. He graduated from Texas A&M University School of Law (formerly Texas Wesleyan University School of Law) with a J.D. in 2010. By combining his education and prior work experience into the field of intellectual property law, Jeff has developed key skills to fully assist clients.