Copyright and Trademarks: What Exactly Is the Difference?

By Katherine at Legal Language
Posted on 07/16/2010
In Intellectual Property



Copyrights and trademarks are integral in protecting your ideas and inventions.

And when it comes to intellectual property, protection is key. You want to make sure your work won’t be stolen, duplicated or compromised. To do that, you’ll need copyright protection. Or will you need a trademark?

What separates copyrights and trademarks? Does one service offer more protection, or are they completely different?

Copyrights and Trademarks: Legal Differences

While the terms “copyright” and “trademark” seem interchangeable, each protects a different type of creation.

Copyrights can be provided to the authors of creative property like literary, musical, dramatic, artistic or other intellectual work, whereas a trademark usually applies to a brand name, logo or company slogan.

Even though both are forms of protection for intellectual property, they are distinct enough to have separate US government offices handling them.

Copyright protection for your work is provided by the US Copyright Office, while trademarks are issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Copyright Information

A copyright allows an author to protect his or her original work that is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” This means that it must exist in a real, fixed form — it cannot just be an idea or subject matter.

Copyrights and trademarks also differ in the amount of time the protection has existed. Copyright law has been around for over 200 years — Article I Section 8 of the US Constitution mentions protection for artists and their work.

Copyright protection is valid for the duration of the creator’s life plus an additional 70 years. Anonymous works and works for hire have different copyright protection terms — either 120 years from creation or 95 years from publication.

Trademark Information

Trademarks exist for brand protection and to prevent consumers from becoming confused. Words, names, symbols, logos, devices, phrases and slogans can be trademarked to indicate where a product came from and to distinguish it from other similar products.

Unlike copyrights, trademarking your brand is a fairly recent practice. Congress introduced trademark protection for the first time in 1946.

Registered trademarks are generally valid for 10-year periods before they must be renewed.

Do Copyrights and Trademarks Ever Overlap?

Sometimes there will be an occasion when copyright and trademark protection may be sought for the same endeavor. For example, an advertisement may be copyrighted, while the new slogan featured in the advertisement will be trademarked.

In addition, copyrights and trademarks may overlap with phrases. Phrases are generally in the realm of trademarks, but as they are written works — albeit quite short ones — they may be copyrightable if the creator can prove originality.

Copyrights and Trademarks: International Recognition

The international laws governing copyright protection differ from country to country. While there is no standardized international copyright protection law that applies throughout the world, many nations offer copyright protection for foreign works.

Trademark registration is generally not valid outside of the United States.

In some instances you may be able to file an “international application” with the International Bureau of the World Intellectual Property Organization. This application will get your trademark recognized and protected in several countries.

If you are concerned with protecting your brand and your work in other countries, it is best to talk to a lawyer with international experience. He or she will be able to guide you through international policies on copyrights and trademarks, and help you decide whether or not you need a legal translation.


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