What’s the difference between copyright, patent and trademarks?

Copyright, patents and trademarks are all types of Intellectual Property (IP). Even though they are very different, people often confuse them. In this article, we will help you understand the differences and decide which is best for your product or service. We will cover the following:

  • Patents
  • Copyright
  • Trademark 
  • What it means for your business

What is a patent?

A patent is all about protecting new inventions. Patents are most commonly used in the pharmaceutical, manufacturing, machinery or technology industries. 

To get a patent for an invention, it must meet a few requirements:

  • It must be possible to make
  • It must possess a function
  • It must be new (the details needed to make the invention must not have been publicly available)

One of the key differences between a patent and copyright or trademarks is that it must involve an inventive step, which means that it must not have been evident for experts in the industry. Specific categories are excluded from patent protection.  

In the UK, the owner of a patent can usually prevent others from manufacturing, using, selling or importing their invention for a period of 20 years. This condition can be hugely beneficial from a commercial standpoint regarding both potential licensing revenue or obtaining a competitive advantage. 

To get a patent in the UK, you need to file a patent application. Patent applications are generally a highly technical document that clearly explains the invention in precise detail and setting out the claims which define the invention. 

What is copyright?

Copyright law is mainly there to protect original expression in writing, dramatic, musical and artistic works, including novels, software, theatre shows, movies, songs, paintings, photographs etc.

Specific protection is available to a copyright holder to prevent others from copying or adapting their work, issuing or renting or lending copies or presenting their work in public. By having control over their work, the copyright holder can monetise its usage and avoid exploitation. 

Copyright law also helps artists to protect their sound, recording, broadcasting and publishing. There are also a lot of related rights for performers. Copyright for literary, dramatical, musical and artistic works lasts for the life of its creator and for seventy years after the year they died.  In the UK, copyright protection is activated automatically, without the need for registration or application. 

What is a trademark?

A trademark is a sign that differentiates the goods or services of one trader from the other traders. Trademarks are usually brand names, logos, slogans or catchphrases, e.g. McDonald’s with their yellow’ M” logo and slogan “I’m lovin’ it”.

However, it is also possible for the shape of goods, packaging, colours, images or sounds to act as a trademark, e.g. Adidas and their three stripes design.  

An essential requirement for a trademark to be protected is that it has to be distinctive. Consumers must be able to quickly identify the owner of the goods or services from those of other traders. Unfortunately, this usually isn’t the case when consumers are likely to think that a sign or slogan is a promotional advertisement or a decorative feature describing the goods or services.

In general, acquiring a trademark registration in the UK and EU helps provide the owner with a way of preventing the use and registration of a trademark that could interfere with their business reputation in the future.

Once you have registered a trademark, it needs to be renewed every ten years but has the potential to last forever.  Learn more about applying for a trademark here

What does this mean for my business?

Trademarks and copyright are the most important to keep in mind for your small business.

The trademark helps consumers identify your brand; it makes it possible for potential customers and other interested parties to recognise your brand instantly. 

Unless you have a patent on your product, there is nothing to stop someone from creating something very similar to it and selling it under a different trademark. You can see this in every supermarket. The only thing differentiating the product from the others is the trademark. 

Copyright, on the other hand, helps to protect a given work from unauthorised replication. Still, it doesn’t do anything to identify your product or service from any others on its own. It also doesn’t prevent someone else from taking any ideas mentioned, changing them around, and putting them in their own words.

As brands become more recognisable and there is more customer retention, a trademark can become one of your most significant and valuable assets. Acquiring the appropriate protection for trademarks is essential to protect the value built up and the brand itself. 

If protection isn’t in place, then third parties may be able to use the same or a very similar trademark in a way that consumers confuse it for your brand, and it results in damaging your business’ reputation, sales and brand image. 

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