Copyright vs. Patent – What’s the Difference?

In today’s business world, success hinges on ideas.  Without new and original ideas, businesses will struggle.  What happens when you have an idea for your business? How do you protect that idea from others?  Patents and copyrights are two types of intellectual property rights that legally protect your ideas.  The problem is that they protect different subject matter and provide different legal rights and protections. Determining which is best for your intellectual property protection will depend on several factors.

What is a Copyright?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects original works.  As soon as the author or creator “fixes” the work in a tangible form of expression, it is essentially copyrighted. There are many examples of the different types of works that can be copyrighted:

A work is considered “fixed” when it is captured in a permanent medium so it can be reproduced, communicated, or perceived.  You fix a work when you write it down or record it.  The artistic work does not have to be published or made public to hold a copyright.

Registering your artistic or literary work with the U.S. Copyright Office is not necessary but strongly advised.  Registering your copyright provides exclusive rights that can be enforced through litigation. Working with a copyright attorney will ensure that your works are protected.

Who is a Copyright Owner?

Everyone! You are the owner if you create original work and write it down or record it. For example, it is yours if you take a photograph and print it or save it to a hard drive. You own that photograph and the right to use it.

Companies and organizations other than the works’ creators can also be copyright owners.  This means that copyright law allows ownership through “works for hire.”   What does that mean for the creator? That means that the creator did the work for an employer within the scope of employment, so the employer owns it.  Work made for hire may also be applied to contracted employees for specific commissioned works.

Copyrights may also be transferred through assignment or from wills or bequests.

What Rights Does a Copyright Protect?  

Registered copyrights provide copyright owners the exclusive rights to:

The length of copyright protection depends on when the work was created.  Current law states that works created on or after January 1, 1978 have a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.  The copyright is extended to 70 years after the last author’s death if it is a joint work.  Works considered works for hire, anonymous, or pseudonymous have protection for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation (whichever is shorter).

What is a Patent?

A patent protects inventions by restricting others from making, selling, or using a product like the one you have patented for as long as the patent is in effect. It gives you, the inventor, the monopoly to manufacture, use, and sell your invention. Patent protection means you have exclusive control over your big idea and can shut others out of the market.

Types of patents that you can apply for:

Utility patent: A utility patent protects inventions, processes, machines, pharmaceuticals, and electronics.  It protects the way something is used and how it works. They last for 20 years from the date you file your patent application.

A utility patent protects inventions for 20 years from the filing date of the patent application. The patent holder must pay periodic maintenance fees to keep the patent from expiring.

Design patent: Design patents protect the ornamental appearance of a product. This includes the shape and configuration of something. In some cases, it can protect both the design and ornamentation. For example, if you create a new, unique piece of jewelry, you can protect the look or design by filing for a design patent.  This patent will protect your design for 14 years from the date the patent is granted.

A design patent will protect designs for 15 years from the date the design patent is granted. The patents do not require maintenance fees to be paid to keep the patent from expiring.

Plant patent: This patent protects new, asexually produced plants.  Plant patents last for 20 years from the date you file your patent application.

Why Do I Need to Know the Difference Between Copyright and Patent?

Understanding the difference between copyright and patent can save you and your business time and money. Artistic works are automatically protected under copyright law the moment they are created.  But to file a lawsuit against anyone that violates your copyright, you must register the work with the U.S. Copyright office.  A patent is different.  For complete protection, you must file a patent application with the USPTO, and the patent has to be granted.  Working with an experienced attorney can save you valuable time and money. They can determine the proper protection that you need. Once you have decided what protection is required for your intellectual property, your attorney will help you navigate the process of applying for that specific protection.  Contact us to protect your property.


SecureMark Legal is a dynamic, women-owned law firm that seeks to take the mystery out of brand protection and really take that aspect of protecting business brands “off your plate” so you can focus on what you do best, running your business. We strive to break everything down for you in easily understandable ways and to really become a partner in your success.  We are based out of South Florida, but since trademark and copyright registrations are primarily Federal in nature, we are able to serve clients all across the United States regardless of where your business is based.