How do trademarks, copyrights and patents differ?

Protecting and respecting intellectual property is important, especially in our current Internet-based environment. Understanding how different protections work can help avoid a dispute in the future.

It’s not easy to know what you need for your original work or how someone else’s property is protected, especially when there are different protections available. How do trademarks, copyrights and patents differ?


Trademarks differentiate someone’s creation from those of someone else. While trademark is generally used as a catch-all for trademarks and service marks, they differ slightly. A service mark distinguishes the source of a service instead. A service mark would be used for content such as brand names, slogans or logos.

Trademarks are unique in that they never expire. As long as someone continues to use their mark, it remains valid. Trademark registrations can also last forever with the right documentation and regular fees.

While trademark registration is not mandatory, it is recommended in many cases because it notifies the public of ownership and creates a legal and federal presumption of said ownership.


Copyrights protect original works of authorship. Some examples may include artistic works – such as poetry, novels, short stories, movies or songs – as well as anything else that is literary, dramatic or musical in nature. Computer software and architecture can also be considered artistic work.

Copyright duration is a confusing matter for many reasons, not least of which is because Disney wanted to extend their copyrights.  The general guidelines are:

  • Any work created by an individual is protected for the direction of their life, plus 70 years
  • Any work created anonymously, under a pseudonym or for hire is protected for
    • 95 years from the date of publication, or
    • 120 years from the date of creation (whichever is shorter)


Patents are property rights relating to an invention. These are granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in exchange for public disclosure of said invention. Patent durations, like copyrights, also vary, but they depend on the type of creation:

  • Design work can be patented for 15 years from issuance if the application was filed on or after May 13, 201. For all applications prior to this date, the patent lasts for 14 years
  • Utility or plant patents last for 20 years after the date of the application filing. In some exceptions, however, the patent duration can begin prior to the filing date

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