What Is the Difference Between Copyright and Trademark?


If you’re starting your own business, you probably have a business name, products, and services that you’ve created, and you may be wondering if you should copyright them. Or perhaps you should trademark them? The question of whether you should copyright or trademark something can be confusing. Fortunately, when you break things down, the difference between the two is fairly simple. Copyrights and trademarks are both forms of intellectual property. Intellectual property is an idea or innovation that has been formally expressed in a way that others can see, touch, or hear — including digital formats. This creates an intangible asset that can be bought, sold, and even rented. Common forms of intellectual property include copyrights, trademarks, patents, and trade secrets.

Can You Copyright a Trademark?

In short, no, you cannot copyright a trademark, nor should you need to. The two forms of protection serve distinctly different purposes. Copyrights are for protecting individual, authored works while trademarks apply to company-wide elements like logos and slogans. When applying for protection for your intellectual property, it’s important to decipher which one you need in order to save you time and money throughout the registration process.

Trademark Examples

A trademark specifically differentiates one company’s goods and services from another. Common forms of a trademark include:

  • company name.
  • A word.
  • A slogan.
  • A symbol.
  • A logo.
  • A specific color.

Typically, trademarks concern commercial enterprises. For instance, an accounting company that is called “The Tax Wizards” may apply for a trademark for their company name so that another accounting company cannot set up shop across town and call themselves “The Tax Wyzards.”

Do Trademarks Expire?

You cannot own a trademark in perpetuity unless you show regular proof that it is still being used in a commercial setting. This proof must be provided every five years in a formal declaration to the United States Patent and Trademark Office in order to retain your trademark.

How To Get a Trademark

If you want to trademark something, such as your business name, the first thing to do is check that no one else is using the name, and reserve your preferred name so that no one else can trademark it while you are getting ready to launch. This will entail making sure the trademarked item is unique and cannot be confused with another company that already exists. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has a database that you can use to search for existing trademarks. If you’re starting a retail company called Wally’s Mart, for instance, you’re likely going to run into issues with the existing company Walmart. In addition, if your name is overly simplistic it may not be accepted either. A generic company name like Best Builders can be registered as a business, but it might not receive a trademark providing exclusivity. The main pain point for a trademark application rejection doesn’t have to do with the company applying as much as the consumers that will use the products and services. The USPTO is interested in ensuring that consumers won’t be confused by the trademarks in use. If you’re confident that the item you want to trademark qualifies, here are the basic steps you’ll want to follow to obtain a trademark:

Copyright Examples

A copyright is obtained in order to protect original works of authorship as well as artistic works. For example, copyrightable materials could include:

  • A computer program.
  • A movie.
  • A book.
  • A map.
  • A sculpture.
  • A recording.

The copyright protects the specific idea or concept that has been expressed.

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

A copyright has a much longer lifespan than a trademark. Copyrights created after January 1, 1978, generally last for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. However, if the work was made anonymously, under a pseudonym, or if the author was hired, the copyright lasts for either 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever one comes first. If the work predates 1978, there are several specific factors, as outlined on the Copyright Office’s website, that can affect how long it will last. There’s no need to renew a copyright.

How To Get A Copyright

If, as you form your company and begin to create products and services, you find that you need a copyright, you’re in luck. A copyright automatically exists upon the expression of your idea, as long as it hasn’t already been copyrighted by someone else. You can search existing copyrights on the Copyright Office’s website. Once you’ve written a book, for instance, you can include the copyright symbol, the first year of publication, and your name as the copyright owner. However, it’s smart to cover all of your legal bases by formally registering and copyrighting it as well. Here are the steps to formally register your copyright: