Understanding the Key Differences Between Trademarks and Copyrights

When new clients contact us with questions about how best to protect their intellectual property, we are often asked to explain the difference between trademarks and copyrights. While they are both important established means of protecting intellectual property, they have significant differences. Understanding these differences can help you to identify your company’s valuable intellectual property assets and guide you to a strategy that will properly protect these important elements of your business.
What is Copyright Protection?
Copyrights are used specifically to protect original works. Examples include things like literary works, dramatic works, musical works (both compositions and sound recordings), artistic works, and other “works of authorship” created by an individual or business. Copyright protection exists for these types of works as soon as they are (a) created and (b) affixed in a tangible medium (such as a piece of paper, a computer hard drive, or a canvas). In order to enforce a copyright, however, it must be registered with the US Copyright Office. (This begs the question whether a creator really has any meaningful rights prior to obtaining a copyright registration.  This is a matter of debate among copyright practitioners.)  Once registered, the copyright holder is able to sue in federal court another party who uses the works without permission.
What is Trademark Protection?
Trademarks are primarily used to protect words and symbols, although they can also protect sounds, colors, names, and other things that are used specifically to distinguish a company’s goods and services from similar goods and services sold by others. A trademark is an essential part of building a brand that is recognizable to customers, and prevents other companies from capitalizing on the name recognition a company has built.  Trademark rights arise from use in commerce, which means in order to have any enforceable rights in a mark, it must have been used to identify its owner’s goods or services.
Understanding the Differences
Nearly every business would benefit from trademark protection because almost every business uses at least one protectable name or logo. Not as many businesses need copyright protection because it is less common for a business to create or own the rights to copyrightable works, however there are some unique situations where a company’s logo would benefit from both trademark and copyright protection.  Businesses that deal in creative works such as books, videos, art, and even non-fiction works such as research and reports should have a strategy in place to protect their copyrights.  On the other hand, all types of businesses should take steps to protect their trademarks.  
The following example can help to illustrate the difference: 20th Century Fox, a universally known movie studio, has registered its iconic logo (among other things) as a trademark that is used to identify its motion pictures.  When 20th Century Fox releases a movie (such as Kung Fu Panda 3, released earlier this year) it registers its copyright in the movie.  To give another example, this article would be a suitable work of authorship for copyright protection.
Contact Us
Understanding the differences between copyrights and trademarks is important, and using them both properly can be essential to the success of your business. If you would like assistance protecting your intellectual property, please contact us to learn more about your options and get the process started.

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