Patents, Trademarks, Copyrights and Trade Secrets: What Are The Main Differences, And Which Is Right For You?

Patents, Trademarks, Copyrights and Trade Secrets: What Are The Main Differences, And Which Is Right For You?

Intellectual property (IP) is an important aspect of modern business, providing legal protection for intangible creations and innovations. Understanding the differences between patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets is essential for all businesses. An experienced intellectual property lawyer in Washington DC can explain and help you make an informed choice between the types of IP protections.

Photo of a Lawyer at WorkWhat are the Differences Between a Patent, Trademark, a Copyright and a Trade Secret?

What are the main differences and how must you protect each?


A patent protects inventions and novel discoveries, granting the inventor the exclusive right to make, use, and sell the invention for a limited period. Generally, an Utility and Plant patents expire 20 years from the registration date. A design patent expires 17 years from the registration date. If you intend to protect your idea outside of the US then you will be filing under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) which requires national stage (Utility is national stage in the US) filings either 30 or 31 months from the date of filing. Patents can claim rights associated with Specific Apparatus Claims, Method Claims, “ Use” Claims, Composition Claims. Product-by-Process Claims, Biotechnology Claims. Software Claims, Omnibus Claims and Design Claims.


Trademarks protect distinctive names, logos, symbols, slogans, and other source-identifying features specifically associated with particular goods or services. The primary purpose of a trademark is to prevent consumer confusion, in other words to ensure that consumers can identify the source of the products or services they are purchasing. Once registered a trademark will have to initially be renewed five (5) years after registration (this is called a section 8) when you will have to show continued use of the same mark as was registered in association with the same goods and services. You can also file for incontestability (section 15) at the same time. An incontestable mark may not be challenged as to whether the mark is valid.


Copyright laws grant protection to original works of authorship / creation set in a tangible medium. Examples of what may be copyrighted include original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright protection is granted automatically on creation and a formal registration process is not required. However, a registration is required if there is an issue which must be litigated and filing prior to publication or within ninety (90) days will shift the burden away from the copyright holder as well as could result in an award of statutory damages and attorney’s fees. If you believe your creative work is replicated for commercial use online without your permission, you should consult with an internet law attorney in Washington DC.

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are commercially valuable on the basis that the information is not known, re has been kept secret except with a limited group of persons, and reasonable steps have been taken by the owner of the information to keep it secret, including the use of confidentiality agreements for business partners and employees. As Trade Secrets are based on state law, whereas Patents, Trademarks and Copyrights are based on federal statute, the laws will change based on the state where the rights are to be enforced.

Key Differences


  • Intellectual Property: Protects new inventions and grants exclusive rights for a limited time
  • Purpose: Incentivize innovation and prevent others from using the invention without permission
  • Duration: Typically, 15 to 20 years


  • Intellectual Property: Protects words, images, look and feel specifically associated with particular goods and services.
  • Purpose: Avoid confusion in the marketplace and establish brand identity
  • Duration: Potentially indefinite with continuous use and maintenance filings


  • Intellectual Property: Protects original works of authorship
  • Purpose: Encourage creative expression and control over the use and distribution of works
  • Duration: In the US, for the life of the copyright owner plus 70 years (currently), if created at an earlier time then the duration will vary based on the date of publication; If outside the US then most likely 50 years after the death of the creator (Berne convention)

What Are the Three Important Differences Between Copyrights and Patents?

Intellectual Property

Copyright protects original works of authorship, such as literary works, sound recordings, art, motion pictures, and software code. It covers the expression of ideas rather than the underlying concepts or functionality.

Patents, on the other hand, protect new and innovative ideas that are non-obvious to someone who is skilled in the art (area of science in which the patent lies). They focus on practical and functional aspects rather than creative expression. However, both protect the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute copies.

Scope of Protection

Copyright protects original works. It prohibits others from copying or using substantial parts of the work without permission. Patents provide the inventor with the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, or importing the patented invention without authorization. It offers broader protection and legal benefits as it covers any similar implementation of the underlying invention.

Eligibility and Duration

Copyright protection automatically applies to qualifying works as soon as they are created and fixed in a tangible form. The protection typically lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. You should speak with a copyright lawyer to exercise your legal rights under copyright law.

Obtaining a patent requires a formal application process, and not all inventions are eligible for patent protection. Patents have a limited duration, generally ranging from 15 to 20 years from the filing date, depending on the type of patent and the jurisdiction.

Photo of a Lawyer with a ClientWhat is the Difference Between a Patent and a Trademark? When Would You Use Each One?

Intellectual Property

A patent protects new and useful inventions, including processes, machines, compositions of matter, and certain designs. It covers the functional aspects of the invention. A trademark protects brand names, logos, symbols, slogans, or any distinctive sign that identifies and distinguishes goods or services from others. As a general rule, infringement of trademarks and patents can attract a federal court trial.

Scope of Protection

Patent law allows for exclusivity. Inventors can prevent others from making, using, selling, or importing the patented invention without permission. Trademarks are used to protect consumers from confusion and ensure that they can identify and trust the source of goods or services bearing a particular mark. Trademarks also help businesses build brand recognition and reputation.

Eligibility and Duration

To be eligible for a patent, an invention must present a new and innovative solution to a technical problem or introduce a unique product or process. Patents are usually valid for 15 – 20 years from the application date depending on the type of patent.

For a sign to be eligible for trademark protection, it must be unique and recognizable, helping consumers easily associate it with a specific source of products or services. Unlike patents, trademarks can potentially last indefinitely as long as they are actively used. A skilled and dedicated trademark attorney can help you file a patent application at the local patent and trademark office.

When to Use

You should consider applying for a patent if you have invented a novel and non-obvious solution to a technical problem or created a new and useful product or process. You should consider registering a trademark if you want to establish and protect your brand identity, prevent others from using a confusingly similar mark, and build customer loyalty.

An experienced trademark or patent attorney can help you with trademark infringement, patent protection, trademark protection, copyright registration, copyright protection, copyright claim, and other legal action.

Which Protection Do I Need: Patent, Copyright, or Trademark?

Determining which type of intellectual property protection you need — patent, copyright, or trademark — depends on the nature of your creation or innovation. If you have invented a new and useful process, the machine, the composition of matter, or a novel and non-obvious design, then a patent is the appropriate form of protection.

On the other hand, if you have created an original work of authorship, such as literary works, music compositions, artistic creations, films, or software code, then you should go to the copyright office to protect your exclusive rights to its artistic aspects. Copyright covers the expression of ideas and provides exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and create derivative works based on your original creation.

If you want to protect your brand identity, which includes brand names, logos, symbols, slogans, or any distinctive sign that identifies and distinguishes your goods or services from others in the marketplace, then a trademark is necessary. Trademarks prevent others from using similar marks that may cause confusion among consumers and help establish and safeguard your brand’s reputation.

Our Experienced Intellectual Property Attorney Can Help Protect Your Creative Work and Business Innovations

At Greenberg & Lieberman, LLC, our experienced Washington DC IP attorneys can help you secure and protect your creative works, innovations, and brand identity. Whether you need patent assistance, copyright protection, trademark registration, or assistance with trade secret contracts we have the expertise to guide you through the process. Schedule a consultation with our knowledgeable attorneys today by calling (888) 275-2757 or using our online contact form.

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