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Business Intellectual Property: Understanding the Difference Between Copyrights, Trademarks, and Patents

by | Jul 14, 2019

Every day, your business is creating intellectual property that you should be keeping track of and protecting. But where do you start? How can you tell the difference between a trademark, copyright, and patent, let alone figure out how to protect and monetize them? No need to panic. Most of your IP will fit easily into one of these three groups and each has its own set of protections established by law.

Intellectual property is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of assets including logos, ad copy, software, architectural drawings, websites, and drug formulas, just to name a few. Most of the intellectual property that your company uses and values will be for branding and/or advertising. Some will also be used in day-to-day operations such as client lists, recipes, or the idea behind the product that your company invented. But what kinds of intellectual property are there? There are three main categories: trademarks, copyrights, and patents.


A trademark (or service mark for services) is a logo, word, number, symbol, color, or even a sound that is used on a product or service to identify you as the seller of that product or service. Famous trademarks include the Nike swoosh, the three-note tone for NBC’s television programming, and the word “Apple” for computers, tablets, and phones. The key is that whatever is chosen as the mark is used to identify you as the seller of those particular goods or services so that consumers can differentiate your products from those of others.


Copyright is enshrined in the Constitution and gives authors an exclusive term to protect their original works of pretty much anything creative. In plain English: writings, ad copy, photographs, architectural drawings, software, paintings, music—pretty much anything creative that is put onto anything somewhat permanent—are protected for a specific amount of time during which others cannot use them. The term depends on who the author is, but as of now, it’s at least 95 years total to 70 years after the death of the author. Though you can file for legal copyright protection in order to bolster your IP defenses and build a foundation upon which to fight back against any legal challenges to your status as creator, a copyright goes into effect automatically and immediately once the copyrightable work is created (unlike trademarks or patents).


Also enshrined in the Constitution, a patent goes where copyright cannot be granted. Patents cover ideas. In exchange for giving up the secret of how your invention works by filing a patent application, the patent law will protect that invention and not let anyone else use it for a period of anywhere from 15 to 20 years. As far as protection goes, copyrights and patents have an obvious leg up over trademarks in that they get their rights from the Constitution. Trademarks should not be pitied, however, since there is no time limit on the protection of a robust mark as long as they remain in use. Your Levi’s jeans have had the same logo since 1886 and they are still protected. Now that you know the differences between the three main types of intellectual property, you should consult with a firm that knows how to protect these different types of valuable intangible assets. Consider making that call to The Campbell Law Group and let us help your company get the intellectual property protection you need.

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