What's the Difference Between Trademark and Copyright?

by Team eLocal
A human finger points to a glowing laptop computer screen displaying a government website defining the differences between copyright and patent and trademark, trademark, copyright, patent, website, computer, laptop

Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

When you create content, make art or decide on a name for your business, the last thing you want is someone stealing your idea. Trademark and copyright law offers intellectual property protection to creators and companies.

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However, there are important differences between trademark and copyright laws, and understanding these differences can help protect your legal rights.

What Is a Trademark?

Trademarks are names, words or logos businesses use to distinguish their products. The goal of a trademark is to enable consumers to quickly identify the source of a product and distinguish it from similar items.

Common trademarks include phrases, symbols or designs. A trademark must be unique, and you usually can't trademark a single name or word. However, you may be able to secure trademark protections for a name or word in a unique font or as it appears in a logo.

Businesses must register their trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to get trademark legal protections. Once a trademark is secured, no one else can provide the same type of item or service using a similar name, phrase or logo. These laws protect consumers and trademark owners from imposters.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright protects creative works, and it can apply to any media, including:

  • Art
  • Movies and other videos
  • Music and original audio recordings
  • Written fiction
  • Nonfiction, such as books, articles and research papers

Generally, people aren't allowed to copy or reproduce copyrighted work without the owner's permission. Copyright law prohibits exact reproductions, such as making a photocopy of a book and selling it. In many cases, the law also prohibits copying original ideas, images or substantial content from a copyrighted work. For example, you're not allowed to recreate images of a character from a protected animated movie and sell them on your merchandise.

However, some exceptions to copyright law exist for people who wish to use excerpts or create parodies. These legal exceptions are known as the fair use doctrine.

What Are the Main Differences Between a Trademark and a Copyright?

Trademarks and copyright have different purposes. If you want to protect the unique identity of your business with a name, logo or short catchphrase, then trademark law applies. Copyright law applies to longer or more complex materials such as books, videos or other creative works.

If you need to protect your intellectual property, you'll want to make sure you know whether to seek copyright or trademark protections because there are different steps for each.

Trademark Vs. Copyright Registration Requirements

A trademark must be registered with the USPTO to ensure protection under federal law. You can also register a trademark with state patent and trademark offices. Unregistered trademarks have only minimal legal protection.

Unlike trademarks, copyrights don't have to be registered. Copyright ownership begins as soon as you create something. However, you may wish to register a copyright, especially if you've put a lot of effort into creating something. Registration is required to pursue a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court, and early registration is strong evidence in your favor.

How Long Does a Trademark or Copyright Last?

A trademark doesn't exactly expire after a set date, but you must use the trademark in commerce to maintain your rights. You'll also have to file documents with the USPTO showing that the trademark is being used. These documents must be filed 5 and 10 years after the USPTO approves your trademark registration.

You must keep using your trademark even after the 10-year mark, or you'll risk losing your legal protections. You may also need to defend your trademark by taking legal action if someone else infringes on your rights. Legal protections can last indefinitely if a business continues to use and defend a trademark.

Copyright lasts for the life of the creator, plus an additional 70 years. Aside from changing the law, there's no way to extend copyright protections beyond this period. However, you don't need to use or sell copyrighted work, and unpublished works are legally protected. You also don't have to defend copyright to maintain ownership.

Can Both Trademark and Copyright Apply to Something?

While trademarks and copyrights are considered different types of intellectual property, there are situations where both apply. If you create original artwork to use in your company's logo, you may be able to obtain both trademark and copyright protections.

Companies may also create copyrighted work and place their trademark on the material. For example, a film company might create a copyrighted movie and display the company's trademark at the beginning of the film and on marketing materials.

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