Patents, Copyrights And Trademarks, Oh My!

from the the-big-three dept

Continuing my series of posts on the basics of "intellectual property" (which, yes, is a misnomer, but that's the next post in the series...), I wanted to just do a quick post highlighting the major differences between the "big three" categories of intellectual property: patents, copyright and trademarks. This is not intended to be a complete description of the three, or a full listing of the differences between them. Just a quick breakdown. And, yes, there are some other things that some people include under the IP umbrella, but we're going to avoid those for now. Too many people seem to mix up patents, copyrights and trademarks (even the popular press does it all too frequently), and it's important to at least understand the basics. Also, on the specifics, I'm sticking to US law, rather than international law. There are some major differences across countries, though the key points are pretty similar.

  • Patents: A patent is an exclusive right, or a monopoly, granted to someone for a limited time in exchange for publicly disclosing a new and non-obvious invention. The purpose of a patent, as discussed last week, is supposed to be to provide additional incentive for the invention to be created in the first place. While many insist that the purpose of the patent system is to force the disclosure of those inventions, that's, at best an exaggeration, and at worst, a complete myth. Generally speaking, a patent lasts 20 years from the date of filing. Under current US law, patentable subject matter has expanded quite a bit over the years, and now includes things that at times were not considered patentable, including software and business models or methods.

    Getting a patent requires going through an application process, which can be rather involved. Given the current backlog, it can take quite a long time to get a patent approved. These days the percentage of patents being approved at the USPTO has dropped drastically from earlier in the decade. This is due to a few things, including changes in policies at the USPTO and in the US court system (basically forcing changes on the USPTO). Recipients of patents can assign those patents to other parties or license them, if they so choose. Patents are given to inventors, not companies, but are often assigned to companies (many employment agreements require employees to assign all patents to the company).

    Infringement over a patent can be for violating specific claims within a patent -- even if the accused infringer came up with the same thing independently. Coming up with something independently is not considered a valid defense against a claim of infringement (though there is some effort underway to change this, and some believe that an independent invention should be evidence against obviousness towards a patent). Winning a patent infringement case can involve an injunction, forcing the infringer to stop producing the infringing product (even if the infringement is a small part of a larger product) as well as fines for the infringement.


  • Copyrights: Copyright is a right given automatically to the creator of new content, granting them the exclusive right (with some exceptions) to reproduce, perform or display the work. There is no application process for a copyright. Any new work is automatically covered by copyright (this is a change from earlier copyright law). Despite the fact that copyrights are automatically granted after a work is created, you can still register a copyright, and doing so allows you to sue for statutory damages against infringers. Copyrights are officially for "a limited time," though that limited time has been expanded repeatedly over the years, and currently stands at "life of the creator + 70 years."

    Like patents, the purpose of copyright is solely to encourage the creation of new content. It's an incentive system of sorts. Contrary to popular opinion, the purpose of copyright has nothing to do with preventing plagiarism or even making sure that someone gets proper "credit" for their works. It also is not designed as a system to guarantee a living for creators. It is merely an extra "right" granted to creators in the hopes that it will help incent the creation of additional content. Copyrights can be sold, and entities other than the original creator can (and often do) own copyrights.

    Copyright infringement is for actually copying the work. Unlike patents where something totally independently created can infringe, copyright infringement only covers copies of an existing work, rather than something similar, but different. There are various and important exceptions to copyright law, with "fair use" being a rather important one. These are uses of the copyrighted content that are considered perfectly legal without first requiring permission. There is also a "right of first sale" associated with copyright, which means that you have the right to resell copyrighted products you have purchased. That's why you can resell a book or a CD that you legally possess.


  • Trademarks: Trademarks are generally a company name, brand or logo that is used to distinguish the company and/or product from competitors. I take exception to the idea that trademarks should be lumped in with patents and copyrights, both of which really come out of the Constitutional clause we discussed last week, and are both designed as incentives for the creation of either inventions or new creative works. Trademarks, on the other hand, are really designed as a form of consumer protection. That is, they're designed to make it so you know who is actually creating a product, and don't get tricked into believing that a certain product was made by one company when it's really made by another.

    There are common law trademarks, but for the most part, a trademark should be registered. Unlike patents and copyright, trademarks aren't designed to expire and can last as long as they're used in commerce and don't become generic. Also, despite attempts to expand what trademark rights grant, they do not confer the same level of control over the mark. Others can make use of trademarks, just not in commerce in ways that are likely to confuse users. Competitors, for example, can use the mark in a comparison or an advertisement (this is sometimes disputed, but it tends to stand).

    Because of the risk of losing a trademark if it becomes generic, there's a belief that trademark holders are required to police its use -- which, again, is a bit of an exaggeration. Yes, trademark holders are required to take certain steps to keep a mark from becoming considered generic and potentially losing the mark, but that doesn't mean threatening or suing anyone who uses the mark. As we've stated, there are many perfectly legitimate ways to make use of someone else's trademark, and going after those uses is not necessary (though, it still happens all too frequently).
Hopefully that helps explain the key points between the three big types of "intellectual property" highlighting some of the similarities and differences between them. Again, this isn't designed to be comprehensive -- but just to highlight some of the key points, in order to avoid confusion in some of the later discussions. For the next piece, I'll get into the phrase "intellectual property" itself, and whether it's an accurate term, as well as look at some of the alternatives.
Links to other posts in the series:

Filed Under: copyright, intellectual property, patents, trademark


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  1. identicon
    SomeGuy, 29 Feb 2008 @ 9:54am

    @Corey

    So, I just had a thought, and I wanted to bounce it off you. I don't mean to be snarky, ironic, sarcastic, whatever; I'm not attacking you.

    But you say you write history books, right? And you say you've written several already. Presumably, you've sold books and recovered your costs and made money from them: or, as you said, you wouldn't keep writing.

    The point is, you have content which has been paid for. Even if it's exhausted the current market, it hasn't *saturated* the market: as proof, I'm a fan of history books but can almost garontee I haven't read anything by you (not a remark against you; as I noted earlier this year, there's SO MANY authors of such unknown quality that I'm usually very hesitant to buy books sight-unseen). I imagine I'm not the only one who hasn't seen these books you have and who would be interested in reading them.

    What I propose is that you digitize the content you already have and distribute it for free online, less as a direct attempt to make money and more as a way of promoting yourself. Since it's content which isn't necessarily "raking in the dough" any more, and the audience it would be distributed to probably doesn't know you from Adam anyways, you wouldn't be losing potential sales. And you may be building something of a fan base.

    From there, whatever. I'm really just curious to see what happens. Maybe nothing. You can go on selling your books the way you do now, but if your experiment in promoting yourself with older material works out, you may sell more of your new stuff.

    That's just an idea: I'd be interested if you have comments.

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