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How Patents Differ from Copyrights and Trademarks

The term "intellectual property" broadly refers to ideas and concepts that are unique and potentially valuable, such as an invention or a work of fiction, and the determination of who (or which entity) owns these ideas or concepts. If you own intellectual property, it means you have the rights to manufacture or license an invention, use a certain distinguishing marks on your packaging or commercials, or publish copies of creative works (such as sound recordings or books). Businesses and individuals also may license intellectual property from the owner without owning it.

There are three distinct types of intellectual property -- patents, trademarks, and copyrights -- which are often confused with one another. This article focuses on patent law and how it differs from trademarks and copyrights.

See FindLaw's Patents section for more detailed information.

Definition of a Patent

A patent is a property right granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). A patent holder may exclude others from using, making, or selling an invention for a limited time. As long as the applicant pays the applicable maintenance fees, the exclusive right for utility and plant patents lasts for a term of 20 years from the application date. The exclusive rights granted for a design patent lasts for 14 years from the date of the grant.

Different Types of Patents

There are three types of patents: utility, design, and plant.

  • Utility patent definition: Granted for new, nonobvious, and useful inventions for processes, machines, manufactures, composition of matter, or if the invention makes an improvement on a previous invention.
  • Design patent definition: Granted for new and original ornamental designs of a manufactured product. The appearance of the object receives protection instead of its functionality.
  • Plant patent definition: A patent for the invention or discovery of an asexually reproducible plant that is distinct and new.

The Difference Between a Patent and a Copyright

While a patent, with the exclusion of a design patent, protects inventions of new processes, copyright protects published and unpublished original works, including works in literature, music, art, architecture, software, and choreography. Like a patent holder, the copyright owner has exclusive rights, including the right to reproduce, make derivatives, distribute copies, display the work in public, or perform the work publicly.

In some cases, an applicant can obtain both a copyright and a patent. Overlap, for instance, can occur between a design patent and copyright in circumstances where the ornamental design qualifies both for a patent and as a work of art subject to copyright protection.

What is the Difference Between a Patent and a Trademark

Patents prevent others from making or selling an invention, but trademarks protect the words, phrases, symbols, logos, or other devices used to identify the source of goods or services from usage by other competitors. Trademarks give the owner exclusive use of certain images and phrases, and the right to prevent others from using a similar mark that would confuse consumers about who was producing the goods or services the consumer was buying.

Typically, overlap does not occur, but in some cases, when a design patent protects the ornamental design of the product and the design is also used as an identifying symbol, both trademark and patent protection may apply.

Get Professional IP Help With Your Patent-Related Issues

Intellectual property law can be extremely complex, typically requiring a background in both the law and engineering. If your inventions are at the heart of what your business does, you should contact a patents attorney for legal guidance. Start today by finding an experienced intellectual property law attorney near you.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified business attorney to help you identify how to best protect your business' intellectual property.

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