Intellectual property is protected under specific laws.
Patent, copyright and trademark laws protect intellectual property. — ijeab/Getty Images

Just as your physical property is protected from theft and damages, your intellectual property (IP) — or things that are created with the mind — is also protected. Generally speaking, your IP can be protected under three different types of laws: patent, copyright and trademark laws. Here is what you need to know about each type of intellectual property.

What is patent law?

Patents are grants provided to inventors that allow them to control the manufacture, use and sale of their inventions. Currently, U.S. patent rights last twenty years from the date of the original application. During that time, the patent owner has the right to recover damages in a lawsuit from anyone who manufactures, uses or sells the patented item without the permission of the holder. To learn how to protect your inventions, creations and business, visit our guide on how to file a patent.

What is copyright law?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, a copyright is a form of protection for “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression,” covering both published and unpublished works. Copyright protections cover a wide range of works, including literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, songs and architecture. Copyright does not protect ideas, facts, systems or methods of operation.

What is trademark law?

A trademark is a word, phrase or logo that identifies a product or service used to distinguish itself from competitors. Trademark law is intended to protect established businesses from infringers who want to trick consumers into purchasing their products or services by capitalizing on a stronger brand name. Trademarks can be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, though you don’t have to trademark your business name, logo, URL or other assets to start doing business. However, it can be very difficult to make a case against copyright infringers if you haven’t already trademarked your business.

[Read: Everything You Need to Know About Intellectual Property]

Just as your physical property is protected from theft and damages, your intellectual property is also protected.

What is the difference between patents and trademarks?

Put simply, patents are designed to protect the commercial use of inventors’ creations from others. Trademarks, on the other hand, are designed to protect the names, products, services and/or logos that are used to identify and distinguish goods and services.

Generally speaking, patent and trademark laws do not overlap, though there are situations in which a product design is protected by both patent and trademark law. Namely, a product that is protected under patent law may also be protected under trademark if it is used to distinguish and identify the product from competitors. For example, a company that manufacturers musical instruments may patent a unique guitar design and trademark it as a distinguisher of that particular product in the marketplace.

What is the difference between patents and copyrights?

The main difference between patents and copyrights is that patents are associated with inventions that are useful, whereas copyrights protect creations that are artistic. For example, an inventor can patent a new type of camera, whereas a photographer using that camera can copyright the photographs they take with it.

Design patents⸺or patents that protect the ornamental design of a product⸺can overlap with copyright law when functional objects have a distinctive appearance, like in the case of a distinctive piece of pottery.

What is the difference between copyrights and trademarks?

While copyright laws protect original works of authorship, such as novels, music and works of art, they do not protect names, phrases or logos. Rather, those elements are protected under trademark laws. Usually, copyright and trademark do not overlap, but they can be used to protect different elements of an object or project. For example, the artistic elements of a logo may be protected under copyright law, while the logo itself is protected under trademark laws.

Patents, trademarks and copyrights are all a part of intellectual property, but they each serve important and specific functions. If you need help determining the best way to protect you and your business, consult a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property.

[Read: Everything You Need to Know About Intellectual Property]

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