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What’s the Difference Between a Copyright and a Patent?

When it comes to protecting intellectual property, the law provides various tools, each with its own set of applications and protections. Two of these tools, copyrights and patents, may seem similar, but they serve distinct purposes in the realm of intellectual property law. This article aims to delineate the difference between a copyright and a patent, providing clarity on these two fundamental components of intellectual property protection. We will explore their definitions, functions, the protection they offer, and how they differ in their application and enforcement.

Understanding Copyright

Definition of Copyright- A copyright is a form of protection provided by the U.S. Copyright Office that grants exclusive rights to the creators of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. These works can be published or unpublished and must exist in some tangible form (e.g., written on paper or stored in a computer).

What does a Copyright Protect?- Copyrights protect the exclusive right of authors, composers, playwrights, artists, and other creators to control how their works are used. This includes the ability for copyright holders to reproduce their works in any tangible form or medium (e.g., print publication, online publication), publicly perform or display their work (e.g., plays or movie screenings), sell or transfer their rights (e.g., license a song for an advertisement), and create derivative works based on the original work (e.g., create a sequel to a book).

Duration of Copyright Protection- Copyright protection begins from the moment a work is created and fixed in tangible form. A copyright registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not required for a work to be protected, but it does provide additional benefits in defending against infringement and pursuing copyright infringement lawsuits. The duration of copyright protection depends on several factors, including when the work was created or published, and can range from a few years to the life of the author plus 70 years.

What are the Different Types of Copyrights?- There are two primary categories of copyrights:

  • Literary works (e.g., books, articles, poems)
  • Audiovisual works (e.g., movies, television shows).

In addition to these primary categories, copyrights may also be granted for computer software programs and architectural designs.

Understanding Patents

Definition of Patent- A patent is a form of protection provided by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that grants exclusive rights to inventors for a new, useful, non-obvious invention. Under patent law, an inventor can use a patent to protect their invention from being copied or used without permission.

What does a Patent Protect?- Patents generally protect inventions that are either products or processes, and may include mechanical devices, electrical machines, chemical compositions, biotechnological advances, as well as business methods and software. Patents provide the patent holder with an exclusive right to use their invention to create a product or provide a service for 20 years from the date of filing the patent application.

Duration of Patent Protection- The duration of patent protection depends on when the patent application was filed. Generally, a patent application must be filed within one year from the date the invention is made or disclosed to the public. A patent can then remain in force for up to 20 years after the filing date, provided certain fees are paid during that time.

What are the Different Types of Patents?- There are three primary types of patents:

  • Utility patents – These are the most common type of patent and protect inventions which are new, useful, and non-obvious.
  • Plant patents – These are granted for the invention or discovery of a distinct and new variety of plant.
  • Design patents – These protect ornamental designs that are applied to an article of manufacture.

In addition to these primary types, there are also provisional patents which provide a basic level of protection for inventions that are not ready to be patented.

Key Differences Between Copyrights and Patents

The most obvious difference between copyrights and patents is the type of intellectual property they protect. Copyright law protects original works of authorship that have been fixed in a tangible medium, while patent law protects inventions and processes. Additionally, copyright protection does not require registration with the US Copyright Office; copyrights are granted as soon as the work is created and fixed in some tangible form. Patents, however, must be applied for at the USPTO before any protection is granted.

Another key difference between copyrights and patents is the duration of protection they offer. Copyrights generally last for the life of the author plus 70 years, while patents are typically valid for 20 years from the date the patent application is filed. Finally, copyrights generally protect works such as books, songs, movies, etc., while patents only protect inventions or processes which are new, useful, and non-obvious.

In conclusion, copyrights and patents serve distinct yet important purposes in protecting intellectual property. Understanding the differences between these two forms of protection is key to ensuring that your works are properly protected under intellectual property law.

When to Seek Professional Advice

Intellectual property law can be complex and difficult to navigate, and it is highly recommended that you seek professional advice from a qualified attorney when dealing with any form of intellectual property. Consulting an experienced lawyer is the best way to ensure that your rights are properly protected and that all legal requirements are met. An experienced attorney can also be helpful in navigating the complexities of copyright or patent law enforcement.

It is important to remember that intellectual property law is a rapidly changing field, and that new legal developments occur regularly. Consulting with a qualified attorney can ensure that your rights are protected in the most up-to-date manner.

By understanding the basics of copyright and patent law and consulting with an experienced lawyer when necessary, you will be able to protect your intellectual property in the most effective way possible. With the proper legal guidance, you can ensure that your intellectual property is safe from infringement and exploitation. Doing so will provide you with peace of mind and the assurance that your hard work and creativity are protected.

The internet has made intellectual property more accessible than ever before and it is important to remain vigilant in safeguarding your rights. When in doubt, do not hesitate to seek professional advice from a qualified attorney. Doing so will help ensure that your intellectual property is protected and remain secure for years to come.

For more information, please contact Arlen Olsen at Schmeiser, Olsen & Watts LLP at