Copyright, Trademark, Patent, or License? Understanding the Differences


Copyright, Trademark, Patent, or License? It can be hard to understand which one is right for you with the different intellectual property rights granted to an individual or company. The distinctions between them can be complex, and a single product or service might include several IP rights. In this blog post, we will discuss: what each type of IP (Intellectual Property) protection entails and how they differ.


Copyrights are the protections provided to authors of original works. The work can be literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic. Copyright protection does NOT protect ideas but only their expression! For example, you cannot copyright a list of ingredients for chocolate chip cookies because it is an idea, not an expression. However, you can copyright the recipe for chocolate chip cookies because it is both an idea and an expression. The length of time a work enjoys copyright protection depends on when it was created, who authored the work (individual or corporation), and whether the author has done any pre-registration formalities with the Copyright Office. 

A basic rule to follow for works first published after January 1978 are protected by US law for life plus 70 years after the author’s death if created by individual authorship. If made under corporate ownership, copyrights last 95 years from publication date or 120 years from creation, whichever comes first. A valid registration provides additional benefits in terms of damages in litigation but does not provide all protections afforded to owners whose rights were registered before the infringing acts.


A trademark is any word, name, symbol, or device used by a person to identify goods and services sold or provided by such person and distinguish them from those sold, manufactured, offered for sale, or otherwise traded by others. The term “trademark” includes service marks as well as trademarks proper (words only). A mark may consist of words/names/letters/numbers/figures/color combinations, etc., together with any combination thereof that indicates the source, sponsorship, or affiliation.

A trademark is not the same as copyright, although they overlap in certain respects. A copyrighted work that has been registered with the United States Copyright Office may have some protection from infringement under federal law. Still, registration does not provide all the benefits and protections afforded by state or common law trademarks. Similarly, a person who uses a service mark without having first obtained a valid registration risks losing rights to its use because there are no “common-law” (unregistered) service marks recognized at the Federal level.


A patent provides legal protection for an invention; this can be something new or improve what already exists. To receive patent protection, one must apply with the US Patent office, which will research the invention’s patentability and, if it meets specific standards, will issue a patent. A patent protects for 20 years, but this can be extended with an additional fee if necessary. Patents are also registered in other countries to protect your invention there as well.

Patent applications must include a description that is “sufficient to enable a person having ordinary skill in the art” (PHOSITA) to make and use it, which means they have enough detail so anyone could manufacture or use something based on what was written without any guesswork required. This requirement ensures patents only cover new inventions, not existing technology, ideas, or knowledge already known about by others who may want to develop their version later down the line.


A license is a form of consent. Permission to use something, such as software or intellectual property (IP), for example, can be granted by the owner in the form of an agreement. There are many different types and uses of licenses that you may run into when using open source technology.

An end-user license agreement (EULA), similar to those used with purchased software applications, is one type of licensing that helps define what users can and cannot do with IP without violating copyright laws: like reproducing copyrighted material; modify it; distribute redistribute copies; etc.

An open-source license is another licensing that helps define the rights and responsibilities of users, developers, distributors, etc. Open-source software (OSS) licenses grant anyone who receives it permission to modify or distribute original work under specific conditions; they also do not include any warranties for its use. Commonly known OSS licenses are GNU General Public License (GPL), Apache Software License, BSD, MIT, MPL.

Is it Possible for a Service or Product to Have Multiple IP Types?

Yes, a single service or product can have multiple types of IP. For example, an app developer can obtain copyright and trademark protection for their products by registering with the U.S. Copyright Office and the website that hosts their application (iTunes, Google Play, etc.). However, this is not standard practice because it’s more cost-effective to protect only one type of IP per application; plus, many apps are free anyway.

The Bottom Line

There are differences in the three legal protections, and knowing these differences can help you make better business decisions. If your goal is to protect a company’s intellectual property, it’s essential to understand how each type of protection differs from the others.

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