What Are Trademarks, Copyrights, and Patents?

It’s not uncommon for entrepreneurs to accidentally mistake trademarks and copyrights as having the same function. Even patents sometimes get lumped in the same category.  

Trademarks, copyrights, and patents are all registered with the federal government to help protect intellectual property. However, these protections aren’t interchangeable. It’s important to have a clear understanding of how each works and how registering for the proper one equips your business for success.


What is a trademark?

Trademarks tend to be confused as being the same thing as copyrights. However, this is not true. Trademarks protect media that distinguishes a business and its visibility to the world. For example, the following may file as a trademark:

  • Names
  • Phrases and/or taglines
  • Symbols
  • Designs
  • Logos
  • Brand mascots

What happens if you do not register these trademarks? Your unique media becomes at risk of plagiarism by outside sources. If you do not claim exclusive rights through trademark registration, competitors may claim and trademark your ideas as their own.

How to register a trademark

Are you ready to file a trademark application? Great! Let our step-by-step pointers below guide you through the process.

  • Conduct a trademark search. Conducting a name search should be done before filing for a trademark. A name search allows you to search through currently registered and pending trademark applications. Doing this helps to verify your mark is unique. If you find out that the mark is available, you may file a trademark application to reserve it. Therefore, you may need to head back to the drawing board to brainstorm new ideas.
  • File a trademark application. Once you have determined your mark is available, it’s time to protect it by applying for a federal trademark. Fill out a trademark application and pay a filing fee with the application before filing it in for approval. Third party filing services, like MyCorporation, will monitor your application while you wait with the help of a trademark watch service. In addition, we will also let you know when it has been approved for registration.


Copyrights are a form of intellectual property protection for original works of authorship. According to copyright law, original creative expression is considered to be the work of its author. This applies to published and unpublished works. If you are the creator of this work, you are its author.

Here’s a shortlist of the works that qualify for copyright registration:

  • Literary works (for example, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, articles, periodicals)
  • Performing arts (music, lyrics, sound recordings, scripts, stage plays)
  • Visual arts (artwork, illustrations, jewelry, fabric, architecture)
  • Motion pictures (movies, TV shows, video games, animation, videos)
  • Photographs (news, wedding, and family photos as well as selfies, for instance)
  • Digital content (computer programs, databases, blogs, websites)
  • Architectural works (buildings, architectural plans, drawings)

As you can see, a copyright is quite different from a trademark! Copyrights protect original works. These do not include business or product names. Those pieces of intellectual property would be protected as trademarks.

When filing a copyright, remember to submit your application form with the non-returnable copy (or copies) of the work you wish to register. You may file for a copyright through the mail at the copyright office or online with the help of a third party service. The sooner you can register a copyright, the better. A registered copyright stays with its creator through their entire lifespan. It also “lives on” an additional 70 years after the death of its creator.


What is a patent?

Patents are not original creative works or word or phrases that distinguish a business. A patent protects the mechanisms, principles, and components of an invention. Patent law also grants property right to the inventor of the invention.

How to register a patent

Fewer entrepreneurs will register for patents like they will trademarks and copyrights. Filing for a patent is a different process.

Firstly, you must determine which type of patent you are eligible to file for. There are three types of patents currently recognized in existence:

  • Utility patent. This is the most commonly filed type of patent. It is granted to individuals that invent or discover a new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter. If you developed a new search engine, for instance, that type of software would qualify as a utility patent.
  • Design patent. A design patent may be granted to an inventor that invented a new or ornamental design for an article of manufacture. Let’s say you developed a design to go on a piece of jewelry, for example. You would be able to file for a design patent to protect that article’s look and appearance.
  • Plant patent. For instance, growing roses in your garden wouldn’t allow you to file for a plant patent. However, inventing, discovering, or asexually reproducing a new or distinct plant would allow you to file for a plant patent.

Filing a patent application

Once you have an understanding of the patent you’re eligible to file for, you may move forward in filing a patent application. Inventors may file provisional and non-provisional patent applications. A provisional application is a lower-cost patent filing. It allows applicants to establish a U.S. filing date for their invention, and claim it during this time. Utility and plant patents may file as provisional, but design patents may not.

File non-provisional filings as soon as possible. The United States Patent and Trademark Office specifies rules and guidelines about the materials necessary for filing patents. These will differ, depending on the patent you choose to file. However, at the bare minimum you will need a written document that details the invention. Additional materials include drawings and an oath or declaration which serves as a formal statement from the inventor.

Additional questions about trademarks, copyrights, and patents?

We’ve got the answers! Check in with our Learning Center to discover more resources for starting a small business. Follow our MyCorporation blog for new articles on startup topics each week.