An Overview of Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights

Setting legal claims and boundaries is a given when creating something new and potentially valuable. Most people recognize that in order to protect their intellectual property, they’ll need a trademark, copyright, or patent. To safeguard their creations, they must understand what each type of protection offers and which is best for their work.

Trademarks

Something that identifies one’s services or products is a trademark. This can be a design, a phrase or expression, a word, or a symbol. Brand names or brand slogans are examples of trademarks. Trademarks are used to set one’s product or service apart from other, similar products and services. Registering a trademark is not a requirement of having a trademark, but by registering it, one has broader rights.

Copyrights

A copyright is a protection for works that have been written or created as other forms of media. Works covered by copyright include movies, music, paintings, software, and books. The copyright protects the holder’s work from others who may want to copy or use it for their own purposes. Only the holder of the copyright may reproduce, display, or otherwise use their work. There are some exceptions, though, such as a work-for-hire situation, when copyright ownership falls to someone other than the original creator.

While filing for a copyright makes it easier to establish oneself as the original creator, it isn’t necessary. Copyright protection goes into effect once a thought or an idea is published, produced, or otherwise made tangible. As of 1978, new copyrights will not expire until 70 years after the original writer/creator has died.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is the name of a nonprofit organization that provides a copyright licensing system. That system, according to their website, “helps overcome legal obstacles to the sharing of knowledge and creativity.” Creative Commons licenses allow a creator to easily share their copyrighted works with others and grant or refuse permission for others to copy, reuse, and even share them, with or without requirements such as attribution.

The license options include:

  • Attribution: CC BY

  • Attribution-ShareAlike: CC BY-SA

  • Attribution-NoDerivs: CC BY-ND

  • Attribution-NonCommercial: CC BY-NC

  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike: CC BY-CN-SA

  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs: CC BY-NC-ND

Creative Commons also includes CC0, also known as CC-zero, which creators may use to put their works in the public domain, where there are no restrictions and attribution is unnecessary.

Public Domain

Written or otherwise created works that are not protected by copyright are said to be in the public domain. Works that fall under the public domain include those that came before copyright laws were enacted, those old enough to have seen their copyrights expire, and those that were directly placed in the public domain. Any works that are not legally covered by copyright, including U.S. government works, are also part of the public domain.

Patents

The exclusive right to one’s invention is called a patent. One must apply for a patent, which is approved and granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Depending on what is being protected, one may apply for a design, utility, or plant patent. A patent prevents the copying or stealing of an invention or process. Most patents have a term of 20 years from the filing of the application and are territorial. This means, for example, that a U.S. patent only applies to the United States and its territories and possessions.

Fair Use

People should also understand what fair use is and how it affects their ability to protect their work. Congress adopted fair use as a part of the Copyright Act of 1976. It allows others to use a portion of a person’s copyrighted work without permission. News reporting, reviews, teaching, and research are all examples of fair use.

This page was last updated by Steven Jefferies