a key on a keyboard labeled with the trademark symbol

Understanding Intellectual Property: Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights

Patents, trademarks, and copyrights are all intellectual property. Intellectual property is an exclusive right to an original creation of the mind. While all three can be registered for particular business use and protected under the law, each has its own set of particular stipulations and areas of use.


The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office defines a patent as an intellectual property right granted by the United States to an inventor to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States for a limited period of time. In exchange for the patent, the invention is disclosed when the patent is granted. The rationale behind disclosure is progress. It encourages and motivates other inventors to create new inventions. Usually of course, the encouragement and motivation is money to be made from the patent. There are 3 types of patents. Utility patents are for new machines, processes, manufacturing or composition of matter, or any new or useful improvements for them. Patents last for 20 years after date of application. Design patents last for 14 years from date the patent was granted.


Patents are not usually confused with trademarks but trademarks are sometimes confused with copyrights. The United States Code defines a trademark as including any word, name, symbol, or design adopted and used by a manufacturer or merchant to identify respective goods and to distinguish them from those manufactured or sold by others. A service mark includes any word, name, symbol, design, or combination thereof that identifies and distinguishes the source of a service. It is a distinctive mark to distinguish a product from goods manufactured or sold by others so as to eliminate the likelihood of confusion as to its source. The Nike "swoosh" or McDonald's golden arches are common trademarks. The NBC peacock is a well known service mark. Sound can also be registered as a sound mark. Think of the NBC chimes or the roar of Leo, the MGM lion. A trademark need not be registered but a registered trademark can be renewed. Failure to renew or make other timely filings can result in cancellation. Registration cannot be renewed or revived after cancellation. A trademark registration lasts 10 years and every 10 years thereafter if renewed.


Copyright protection is available for original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium from which they can be perceived directly or with the aid of a device or machine. Copyright laws offer basic protections that cover authorship of literary and musical works, dramatic works and cinema, dance, artwork, and sound recordings, among other works. Like a trademark, a copyright need not be registered. Copyright protection begins when the creation is translated into fixed form. It extends for life plus 20 years and in some cases longer. If an enforcement proceeding is brought before a court however, the copyright must be registered prior to initiating any proceedings.

Last Updated: January 30, 2017