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What’s the Difference Between Trademarks and Copyrights?

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

What it is and why it matters for your company.

As a business owner, you’ve heard the terms “trademark”, “copyright”, and even “intellectual property” thrown around. You’ve also wondered when and whether your company should turn its attention to such things. Problem is, you don’t have time to sort through the conflicting information, opinions, and noise surrounding IP topics.

Look no further – you’re in the right place. Let’s get to it.

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property (aka “IP”) mostly refers to patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. IP is an umbrella term for these valuable, yet intangible, forms of property. Companies spend considerable time and money protecting their IP, because it directly impacts client and consumer buying decisions. How? Because people like to buy from brands they trust (trademarks), consume content they like (copyright), and enjoy useful innovations (patents).

Without IP, a business would have nothing to sell. Imagine taking a business, but stripping away its name and its logo along with its content and unique ideas. What would be left? Not much. For this reason, intellectual property is often the most valuable asset that a company owns. Importantly, under US law, only intellectual property owners get to decide how IP is used and monetized. If IP ownership is disputed or unclear, this undermines a company’s ability to monetize.

Copyrights vs. Trademarks

While there are several types of intellectual property, not every business generates every type of IP. However, almost every business will have at least one trademark, and probably multiple copyrights.

You may have heard the terms “copyright” and “trademark” used interchangeably, but they are very different assets. Copyrights protect original, tangible work. This includes everything from lines of computer code to UI design, from podcasts to videos, from blog posts to photography. Essentially, if it can be written or recorded, it’s probably protectable under copyright law.

In contrast, trademarks protect brand identifiers such as a business name, logo, slogan, jingle, distinctive packaging, or even a custom store layout (think: the Apple Store). So if copyright protects creativity, trademarks protect branding. Trademarks communicate to consumers where a product or a service is coming from. When managed correctly, trademarks enable businesses to foster trust and goodwill.

When should a business start protecting its trademarks and copyrights?

The best case scenario is for founders to begin protecting IP before the business even starts. In the U.S., it can take a year or more to get trademarked, so founders can start this process well in advance of business launch. On the copyright side, founders can protect themselves by having clear agreements with co-founders regarding who owns what. Another important step for founders is to make sure that any independent contractors or freelancers have signed contracts that ensure that copyright ownership stays with the company.

But what if your business has already launched? What if you’ve already been in business for 15 years? The right lawyer can help mature businesses untangle thorny IP issues and even resolve conflicts between business owners and founders. The sooner the ball gets rolling, the closer the company gets to protecting the assets which matter the most.

Thanks for reading the Bevel Law Blog! While this information is hopefully helpful to you, nothing in this blog is intended to be legal advice. Always consult a lawyer before making any legal decisions based on topics in this blog.

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