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Know the Difference Between Trademarks, Copyrights and Patents

Intellectual property protection is important for all small business owners. There are four main types of intellectual property: trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets.

This FindLaw article will help you understand how trademarks, copyrights, and patents differ in regard to legal protection and intellectual property rights.


Trademarks protect brand names, service marks, phrases, and logos that help distinguish goods and services. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) oversees the trademark application process.

Federal trademark registration is essential for business owners looking to have exclusive rights to their business name or logo. A registered trademark for your brand name or logo ensures that only your company can use the brand name or logo on its products.

Here are some examples of famous trademark names and logos:

  • Nike “Swish" logo
  • Coca-Cola's red and white logo and name
  • McDonald's golden arches
  • Starbucks' green mermaid logo
  • Chanel's interlocking CC logo
  • Rolex crown logo and name

Even if your business has not registered a trademark with the USPTO, you still have certain protections under common law.

Trademark rights don't prevent the reproduction of a trademark. However, they prevent someone from using a trademark in a way that would lead consumers to believe the good they were buying came from somewhere it did not.


Copyrights protect original works of authorship in a tangible form. The creative works that receive copyright protection are literature, visual art, music, and audio recordings. A copyright prevents unauthorized reproduction.

There are common law rights in copyrights that occur upon creation. However, without a federal copyright registration, the copyright holder cannot sue in federal court, recover attorneys' fees, or have the presumption of damages necessary for punitive damages.

The U.S. Copyright Office grants federal copyrights. The U.S. Copyright Office oversees copyright registration and handles copyright infringement cases.

Examples of copyrighted works are:

  • "The Hunger Games" book series and films
  • Beyonce's "Rennaissance" album
  • The "Spoonbridge and Cherry" sculpture

Copyright protection grants creators exclusive rights to display, distribute, and reproduce their original works. If someone wants to reproduce or sell a copyrighted work, they must first get the copyright holder's permission.


Patents protect useful inventions, certain types of plants, and the designs of products. There are three types of patents: utility patentsplant patents, and design patents.

Most people are familiar with the utility patent, which protects the composition of matter, processes, software codes, and machines. Design patents protect the ornamental design, or appearance, of functional items. Plant patents protect new plant varieties that are reproduced asexually.

Examples of patented works include:

  • iPhones
  • Traffic signals
  • Glass Coca-Cola bottles
  • Global Positioning System (GPS)

Patents give inventors a monopoly on the manufacture, use, or sale of certain types of inventions. Inventors submit patent applications through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

How Trademarks, Copyrights and Patents Overlap

The overlap of intellectual property protection (IP protection) occurs when a business idea or new product qualifies for multiple forms of intellectual property protection.

Trademark rights prevent someone from using a trademark in a way that would cause significant consumer confusion about the source of goods for sale. While copyrights generally aren't available for titles and phrases, a trademark might be.

Trademarks and copyrights sometimes co-exist in the same work. For example, suppose a company creates a logo to promote its products. The company owns a copyright in the logo and, assuming the logo meets the standards for trademark protection, could hold a trademark in the logo as well. The copyright prevents someone else from reproducing the logo. In contrast, the trademark rights prevent any use of the logo in the marketplace, which may confuse consumers regarding the origin of goods.

These have overlapping IP protections:

  • Nike - The brand name is trademarked. The design of the Nike Air Force 1 shoe is patented. Copyrights can protect the designs of Nike clothing.
  • Krispy Kreme - The logo and company name is trademarked. Their unique recipe may be treated as a trade secret or patented if it contains a novel process.
  • SZA's album "SOS" - The songs are protected by copyright. The album's title and artist name may be trademarked. A patented technology might be used in the recording process.

Trademarks and patents overlap less frequently than trademarks and copyrights do, but it is still possible. When an inventor comes up with a distinctive product design, such as a uniquely shaped musical instrument like Prince's Purplaxxe keytar, they may get a patent over the design of the instrument. They can also obtain trademark rights over the use of the instrument's shape to indicate the product's origins.

Confused? Get Legal Help With Your Trademarks Today

You will likely want to protect your intellectual property as a small business owner, entrepreneur, or startup company. If you have questions about the application process, filing fees, or IP maintenance fees, contact an intellectual property law attorney in your area.

You can also see FindLaw's Intellectual Property section to learn more about the different forms of intellectual property.

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