A patent allows the creator of certain kinds of inventions that contain new ideas to keep others from making commercial use of those ideas without the creator's permission. For example, Tom invents a new type of hammer that makes it very difficult to miss the nail. Not only can Tom keep others from making, selling, or using the precise type of hammer he invented, but he may also be able to apply his patent monopoly rights to prevent people from making commercial use of any similar type of hammer during the time the patent is in effect (20 years from the date the patent application is filed).
Generally, patent and trademark laws do not overlap. When it comes to a product design, however -- say, jewelry or a distinctively shaped musical instrument -- it may be possible to obtain a patent on a design aspect of the device while invoking trademark law to protect the design as a product identifier. For instance, an auto manufacturer might receive a design patent for the stylistic fins that are part of a car's rear fenders. Then, if the fins were intended to be -- and actually are -- used to distinguish the particular model car in the marketplace, trademark law may kick in to protect the appearance of the fins.
For more information about patent law, see the Patents section of Nolo's website.
Copyright protects original works of expression, such as novels, fine and graphic arts, music, audio recordings, photography, software, video, cinema, and choreography by preventing people from copying or commercially exploiting them without the copyright owner's permission.
Copyright laws do not protect names, titles or short phrases. That's where trademark law comes in. Trademark protects distinctive words, phrases, logos, symbols, slogans, and any other devices used to identify and distinguish products or services in the marketplace.
There are, however, areas where both trademark and copyright law may be used to protect different aspects of the same product. For example, copyright laws may protect the artistic aspects of a graphic or logo used by a business to identify its goods or services, while trademark may protect the graphic or logo from use by others in a confusing manner in the marketplace. Similarly, trademark laws are often used in conjunction with copyright laws to protect advertising copy. The trademark laws protect the product or service name and any slogans used in the advertising, while the copyright laws protect the additional creative written expression contained in the ad.
For more information about copyright law, see the Copyright section of Nolo's website.
Whether you're investigating patent, copyright or trademark law, get Patent, Copyright & Trademark: An Intellectual Property Desk Reference, by Richard Stim (Nolo), the most concise and comprehensive explanations of intellectual property in one volume.
A trademark is a word, name, phrase or logo that identifies a product or service and helps distinguish it from that offered by the competition. To determine whether a potential business name or product name is trademarkable, see Nolo's Qualifying for Trademark Protection FAQ.