Photo credit: mlinksva via flickr

Photo credit: mlinksva via flickr

Trademark vs copyright – what’s the difference? While both offer protections under the law, each protects different kinds of intellectual property. They actually have very little to do with one another.

What a trademark protects

A trademark protects a name, logo or slogan that is used to identify and distinguish a product or service in the marketplace. Put another way, trademarks are used to differentiate one product or service from competing products or services.

For example, if you owned a restaurant named Billy’s Burger Bar, then the name of the restaurant could serve as a trademark. The name would identify, distinguish and differentiate your business from other restaurants in your area.  When people hear or see the name Billy’s Burger Bar they would understand it to be a reference to your restaurant, and not to the Burger King restaurant across the street.

Additionally, the purpose of having a trademark is to stop competitors from using your business name for their own business.  You want to be the only Billy’s Burger Bar in town (or in the country).  If another restaurant opened up with the same name, then that could cause confusion among your customers, and people might assume that the two restaurants were related.  With a trademark, you could then stop the other restaurant from using the same, or a similar, name or logo.

What copyright protects

Instead of protecting a name or slogan, a copyright protects an original creative work, such as a book, a film, or a painting.

By having a copyright, the author of the creative work can stop others from copying or reproducing the work without permission. In other words, a copyright provides you with the right to control how your creative work is used.

For example, the Harry Potter books are protected by copyright.  This means that if you published a book that copied the text of the Harry Potter books without the copyright owner’s permission, then you would be in violation of the owner’s copyright. The owner could then sue you in federal court for copyright infringement.

Copyright law exists to provide creators with the exclusive rights to their works. If anyone could copy and resell creative works without restriction, creators would have much less incentive to produce anything. Copyright law allows them to profit from their creative endeavors.

It should be noted that copyright protects only the content of the creative work. It does not protect the ideas found therein. Someone could write and publish a book about wizards and magic, very similar to the Harry Potter books, without violating copyright law. As long as the content is original, the work would not only be free from copyright violation, but it would be copyrightable itself.

Trademark or copyright?

So how can you tell if you need a trademark or a copyright? Thankfully, this is a very easy exercise.

If you have a business and you want to protect its name, logo, or slogan, then you would need a trademark.  Famous examples of trademarks for businesses include the names Nike and Burger King, and the slogans Just Do It and Have It Your Way.

If you have a product, and you want to protect the name, logo or slogan that you use to promote or sell that product, then you would also want to get a trademark.  Famous example of product trademarks include the name “iPhone” for Apple’s line of smartphones, and the name “Barbie” for Mattel’s line of dolls.

On the other hand, if you have created content, then your work would likely fall under the realm of copyright law. Examples of copyrightable content include:

  • Books
  • Manuscripts
  • Screenplays
  • Films
  • Movies
  • Paintings
  • Photographs
  • Poems
  • Song lyrics
  • Musical composition

For example, the lyrics and music to the song “I Will Always Love You” are protected through copyright.  The movie Jaws is also protected through copyright. Essentially, any creative and original work outside of business names or slogans can be protected through copyright.

The only exception to the general rules listed above is that logos can be protected by both trademarks and copyrights.  A logo is both a creative work (which is required for copyright protection), and a device used to distinguish or differentiate a product or service from another competing product or service (which is required for trademark protection).

The general public might often confuse the terms copyright and trademark, but it’s important to understand that they protect different assets.