The Little-Known True Stories Behind Well-Known Inventions

What's the Difference Between a Trademark,
a Copyright and a Patent?

There are three types of intellectual property of that you probably know about: Trademarks, copyrights and patents. There's a fourth type, called trade secrets, that very few people know much about. I guess that why they're called trade secrets. We will dissect each of the four types in this column. 

A trademark is a word, phrase or symbol that identifies the source of a product and distinguishes it from others. Brand names are trademarked. Trademarked product names or company names are shown with the TM symbol, usually written in a smaller font. 

EXAMPLE: Invention Mysteries TM

A registered trademark is a trademark or service mark which has been registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (U.S. PTO). The symbol for a registered trademark is ®.

EXAMPLE: Pepsi ®

Trademark rights arise from either using the mark in public OR from filing an application to register it with the PTO. Certain items are not eligible for a trademark, such as letters, numbers, slogans, colors (the pink color of Owens-Corning’s insulation). 

A service mark is the same as a trademark except that it identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product. Service marks are shown with the symbol SM.

EXAMPLE: GE’s We Bring Good Things To Life SM

A copyright protects an original artistic or literary work; a copyright lasts for the "life of the author plus 70 years." Copyrights protect the following: Literary works, such as books, plays, articles or poems; songs (without a copyright, there would be no royalty payments to the musician); movies, including movie soundtracks; pictures and paintings; architectural works and pantomimes.

A copyright is created when the work is published with the copyright symbol © and the year next to it, and the copyright holder usually places his name on the copyright notice, too. A copyright can also be filed with the Library of Congress to prevent or resolve future disputes over ownership. 

EXAMPLE: Warner Brothers © 2001 or Copyright © Warner Brothers 2001.

What is not eligible for copyright protection? Works that consist entirely of common knowledge and contain no original work, such as calendars, rulers, height & weight charts, tape measures. 

A patent protects an invention for 20 years from the date the patent is applied for with the patent office. There are 3 types of patents: utility, design and plant. A utility patent protects the functionality of an invention, a design patent protects the appearance of an invention and a plant patent, as the name implies, refers to the discovery or creation of a new plant. The patent number, or the term "patent pending," is placed somewhere on the product or the packaging.

The term "patent pending" means that a patent has been applied for but has not yet issued. If the patent later issues, the patent holder is protected for twenty years from the date of his application. The unauthorized use of another’s patent, trademark or copyright is called "infringement." When this happens, the result is usually litigation through the courts.

Approximately 20 percent of the patents issued each year go to independent inventors while 80 percent go to corporations, yet more than 2/3 of the major new product breakthroughs in the 20th century came from individual inventors rather than corporations. Further, while many people assume that a patent usually makes an inventor wealthy, fewer than 2 percent of all patents actually produce a profit for the inventor. 

The fourth and final type of intellectual property is the trade secret. Examples of trade secrets include the recipe for Colonel Sanders' chicken and the formula for Coca-Cola ®. Trade secrets are not patented for two reasons: First, patents expire after twenty years. Second, patents become common knowledge once they're issued and, even though they offer legal protection against infringement, patent attorneys and product developers can sometimes "design around the patent." In some cases, a firm will try to reverse engineer a product to find out what ingredients it contains and how it is made. 

Now you know the difference between a trademark, a copyright and a patent and what all those symbols stand for.

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Newspaper Connection for Students:  Search through newspaper ads looking for any of the symbols discussed. What types of ads used trademarked items most often? Why do you think this is so? Were you able to find any copyright symbols? What recent event regarding copyrights has been greatly publicized in newspapers and other media that possibly affects you?  (Hint: think music!) Look for a story about this and decide as a class if the article is biased for or against the owners of music. Write an opinion article about the rightness or wrongness of downloading music from the internet, and be sure to support your thoughts with facts. Remember: you could copyright your opinion paper!!! 

Click here to read "Here's why you've never heard of the other person who invented the telephone"
Click here to go to the N.I.E. page.


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Paul Niemann
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© 2008 Paul Niemann