“Intellectual property” covers a wide range of business assets, such as books, screenplays, photos, movies, computer software code, inventions, and formulas. Copyrights, trademarks, and patents are the main types of intellectual property. Federal law provides strong protections for the creators of original works, inventors, and licensors of IP rights, but the law is complex. In fact, people often confuse copyright, trademark, and patent because each kind of intellectual property protects creators or licensors against unauthorized use or infringement by others, but they do so in different ways. If you are involved in an intellectual property dispute, you need to have a solid understanding of what the law says with respect to copyright vs. trademark vs. patent.
To learn more about the differences between copyright law, trademark law, and patent law, keep reading this blog.
What’s the Difference Between Copyrights, Trademarks, and Patents?
Intellectual property can be an extremely valuable business asset. That’s why it is important that only the rightful owner of the asset’s IP rights be allowed to exploit the intellectual property for profit, whether that involves selling it or licensing it. The three most common tools used to protect the intellectual property rights of certain types of assets are:
As set forth in the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright protects original creative works like novels, songs, paintings, videos, photographs, drawings, clothing, jewelry, and even websites. Only the copyright holder may copy, sell, perform, or display the work for profit, or license the work to someone else for commercial reproduction, distribution, performance, or display.
When it comes to securing copyright ownership, the original creator of a work technically doesn’t need to do anything to acquire the copyright of that work. But there are a number of benefits only available to those who actually register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. For example, if someone does infringe on your copyright, you will first need to file for copyright registration before you can bring a lawsuit in federal court to enforce your copyright. Additionally, copyright registration will probably make it easier for you to back up your case in court because there will be a public record of the copyright claim: all officially copyrighted works published after 1978 are deposited with the Copyright Office and entered into an online database.
While copyright applies to original works of authorship, a trademark covers unique words, phrases, slogans, symbols, and designs that can be used to identify a good, product, or service. A requirement for a company trademark is that the name or logo being trademarked should distinguish the product or service from any other products or services. For example, the product name for Coca-Cola is trademarked because it stands out from all other soft drinks on the market, and everyone who hears the name knows exactly what it refers to.
Just as with copyright law, a trademark does not actually have to be registered in order to get trademark ownership. Even without registering the trademark, you can still use common law to protect against trademark infringement by competitors who attempt to copy the look of your product and pass it off as their own. Just as with copyright law, however, official registration of your trademark comes with certain advantages, including the ability to file a lawsuit in federal court to enforce your trademark against unauthorized use.
To get trademark protection solely within your home state, or in the state where you conduct business, you must register with that particular state. To get federal trademark protection that crosses state boundaries, you must file a trademark registration application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Once you’ve registered your trademark, you will be allowed to use the registered trademark symbol (®). Otherwise, you are limited to the common law trademark symbol (™).
Generally speaking, patent law protects inventors by giving them the exclusive right to make, use, copy, or sell their inventions or discoveries, or to license their inventions to another person or entity. Obtaining a patent can be extremely difficult, and it often requires the assistance of an experienced intellectual property lawyer.
Unlike with copyrights and trademarks, the only way to avail yourself of patent protection is to apply for and be granted a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the same agency that handles trademark applications. Absent patent registration, the formula or process used in the invention may be considered a “trade secret.” The main advantage to obtaining a patent is that you can then sue anyone who infringes the patent by using or selling your invention without consent. But patent registration does come with a significant downside: you must publicly disclose the unique process or composition of your product. For certain companies that wish to maintain trade secrecy (e.g., pharmaceutical drug manufacturers), this can present a dilemma.
Contact the California Intellectual Property Lawyers at Tauler Smith LLP
If someone has infringed on your exclusive intellectual property rights, or if you have been accused of violating someone else’s intellectual property rights, your best move is to speak with a knowledgeable IP lawyer immediately. The California intellectual property attorneys at Tauler Smith LLP, with a main office in Los Angeles, are prepared to help you bolster your IP claim or build a strong defense against an accusation of copyright or trademark infringement. Call us now at 310-590-3927 or fill out the online contact form.