Trademark, Patent, or Copyright?


A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others. A service mark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than goods. Think brand names, slogans, and logos. The term "trademark" is often used to refer to both trademarks and service marks.  Unlike patents and copyrights, trademarks do not expire after a set term of years.  Instead, a trademark can last forever, so long as the owner continues to use the mark in commerce to indicate the source of goods and services.

Must all marks be registered? No, but federal registration has several advantages, including a notice to the public of the registrant's claim of ownership of the mark, a legal presumption of ownership nationwide, and the exclusive right to use the mark on or in connection with the goods or services set forth in the registration.

A patent is a limited duration property right relating to an invention, granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in exchange for public disclosure of the invention.  Patentable materials include machines, manufactured articles, industrial processes, and chemical compositions.  The duration of patent protection depends on the type of patent granted: 14 years for design patents and 20 years for utility and plant patents.

A copyright protects works of authorship that have been tangibly expressed in a physical form.  Think songs, books, movies, and works of art.   The duration of copyright protection depends on several factors.  For works created by an individual, protection lasts for the life of the author, plus 70 years.  For works created anonymously, pseudonymously, and for hire, protection lasts 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

The Trademark Operation of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) handles trademarks only. For information on patents, please visit Patents or contact 800-786-9199. For information on copyrights, please contact the U.S. Copyright Office (a division of the Library of Congress).