Patent VS. Copyright: What’s The Difference

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The lightbulb, the telephone, and the telescope. All of these are revolutionary inventions that have changed the course of humanity forever. As a result, most people are familiar with their inventors (Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Galileo, respectively). However, many historians claim that these icons of science and innovation are not the ones responsible for these technological achievements. Instead, the names and identities of their true inventors can easily be forgotten at times. The reason? These inventors failed to file a patent application to patent their work. Whether you’re an artist, an entrepreneur, or an investor, it’s important to claim ownership over your work. Now more than ever, the internet makes it remarkably easy to pirate all sorts of content, from music to manuscripts. For those who have spent hours or even years pouring their hearts and souls into a creative project or business endeavor, having someone else steal your idea and profit off of it can be devastating. This is why both copyrights and patents exist. While you’ve likely heard both of these terms before, most people outside of legal professionals are unaware of the intricacies protecting their creations. In this article, we are going to break down both copyright and patents , exploring how each of these methods of protection function, as well as when they are appropriate to use.


We should also mention trademark rights here. Trademark protection is a form of protection that has to do with your brand in regards to your goods and services. Or you can use a trademark to protect your slogan . Trademark registration is for anything that you feel is proprietary to your business identity.

What Is a Patent ?

There’s no question that it's important to protect your ownership over your work legally. However, depending on the nature of your product, the methods of doing so will vary. In order to highlight the differences between patents and copyrights , let’s take a closer look at what each of these terms means, starting with patents . While patents are used to protect all kinds of modern technological achievements, they date back hundreds of years. The first patent for technological invention was awarded in fifteenth-century Italy to the creator of a barge with hoisting gear to transport marble. Since then, there have been 10.6 million patents awarded around the world, with 25% of those issued in the United States. Essentially, patents are a property right granted to inventors by the federal government. This means that anyone other than the patent holder is excluded from making, selling, or using that invention for a limited time (usually 20 years). However, three different types of patents are designated for different kinds of inventions, all of which are discussed below.

Different Types of Patents

In the world of entrepreneurship, there are countless terms to familiarize yourself with. In terms of utility patents , the three different classifications to know are:

  • Utility Patent
  • Design Patent
  • Plant Patent

Let’s discuss what qualifies an invention for each of these categories.

Utility Patent

Utility patents are the most common kind of patent and protect the way that a product works. This means an entirely new machine, chemical compound, process, or method will fall under a utility patent . Furthermore, utility patents are further broken down into three more categories based on their function: electrical, chemical, and mechanical.

Design Patent

Unlike utility patents , design patents are designated for the way things look rather than the way they function. However, if the way a product looks and functions are unique, separate design and utility patents can be filed. Design patents are applied to the unique ornamental design of a functional item. This includes things like jewelry, automobiles, packaging, and even software icons.

Plant Patent

While design patents and utility patents are easily confused, plant patents are a bit more unique. Plant patents are awarded to the inventors of plants that are new and distinctive. Furthermore, the plants must be produced asexually. This means that, rather than the plant being grown from a seed, it is produced from cuttings or grafting and can be duplicated. Just like the other two patents , plant patents last for 20 years and prevent anyone other than the patent holder from producing or selling that particular plant.

How to Apply For A Patent

In order to apply for a patent , you have to present an invention and document the invention process. Not only must you document when and how you conceived the idea for the invention, but also provide proof that the invention works, including schematics, drawings, and photos. Additionally, you must keep the invention to yourself. As tempting as it may be to shout your exciting new discovery from the rooftops, this is likely to compromise your ability to file a patent successfully. All patents must be entirely novel , meaning that a patent is ineligible if it already exists in another capacity. To ensure that your invention is unique, you will have to conduct a patent search, which involves sifting through the USPTO ( United States Patent and Trademark Office ) database in order to ensure that other patents don’t overlap with yours. When filing a patent , people often hire a legal professional to handle all of the nitty-gritty details. Particularly for those forming a business around their invention, taking on the legal procedures towards securing a patent may be too much to handle . However, it is also possible to file for a patent on your own. While the process of filing for yourself and your co-investors can be tedious, it can save you the thousands of dollars that hiring a legal professional can entail. On the other hand, failing to write a comprehensive description of your invention can limit its strength against competitors. Once you’ve determined that your invention is patentable, you can visit the USPTO website for comprehensive instructions on how to file for a patent .

For all of the musicians and filmmakers, and content creators out there, a plant patent may not be the most useful thing to protect your art. Instead, copyright protection is what you need in order to make sure you receive the credit and payment you deserve. If you’ve ever seen a little c in a circle (no, we’re not referring to the Comedy Central logo ) next to a brand name on a label, you’re familiar with copyright registration symbols. Copyright is a form of intellectual property protection that the federal government provides, just like patents . While there are entire degrees related to the nuances of copyright law , let’s cover some of the basics. The categories of art and subject matter that are included under copyright law are:

  • Music
  • Literature
  • Photographs
  • Movies
  • Software
  • Architectural Work

According to copyright .gov , copyright is “a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression.” Copyrights give the owner the exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, or display their work and create derivative works (works based on the original work ). The copyright owner also holds power to allow others to perform any of the acts above. Copyright law also states that copyrights are only applicable to a “form of material expression,” meaning that you can’t copyright an idea or concept. Instead, ideas arranged into stories and written down on paper or translated into a painting are examples of tangible things that can be copyrighted. So for instance, Harry Potter is copyrighted intellectual property, so it is illegal to produce and sell stories, including the character Harry Potter without obtaining permission from the copyright owner. However, the basic concepts and ideas behind Harry Potter cannot be copyrighted, meaning you are free to write a book about a different boy with magical powers or a group of friends who go to school in an enchanted castle.

Seeking official copyright is not required to protect their work since certain protections exist once the work exists in a tangible form . However, doing so can further provide creators with many real benefits. For instance, if your work is not copyrighted, you can seek actual damages, which are typically hard to prove and yield a relatively low financial reward. On the other hand, having copyright allows you to claim up to 150,000 dollars in statutory damages and hold up much better in court. Plus, copyrights last for the length of the author’s life, plus 50 years, so taking the extra steps towards filing copyright will likely be worth your while (and due to royalties, your grandkids may thank you for it) Applying for copyright is much simpler than applying for a patent , so even sole proprietors and individual artists can easily apply. The application can be done online at copyright .gov and can cost as little as 45$ though most registrations will cost you $65. And, since the application process is so easy, it’s unlikely you’ll need to pay extra for the assistance of a legal professional.

In Conclusion

While both copyrights and patents exist to protect creators’ work legally, they are used in different cases. So, patents preserve the functionality and design of physical and tangible items. On the other hand, copyrights are used for intellectual properties, which are typical works of art. In either case, legally claiming ownership for your creation is necessary to prevent others from stealing your ideas and taking away from your profits. Sources: Up Council | How Many Trademarks Are There? copyright .gov | What Is Copyright ? USPTO | Trademark Basics

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