While both copyright and patent refer to legal protection provided to intellectual property, the two terms differ fundamentally in their respective definitions -- and in practical application. Nonetheless, in each case, registering your property with the proper government agency affords you the greatest possible legal protection against infringement, or unauthorized use of your intellectual property. You may register your patent or copyright application independently, with the help of an attorney or through an online legal documentation service.
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The origin of American copyright law is English common and statutory law. Initially, it only protected fiction and nonfiction written works. Copyright law in the 21st century has been expanded and covers not only written fiction and nonfiction works, but also artwork, music, sound recordings and similar creative works. Creative works must be recorded in some tangible form to be eligible for copyright protection; ideas cannot be copyrighted. You do not have to register your work with the United States Copyright Office to be covered by copyright protection; however, registration provides the best form of legal protection.
A patent grants a patent holder the legal right to exclusively manufacture, license and reproduce an original invention or discovery. As of 2012, the United States Patent and Trademark Office recognizes three types of patents: utility patents for tangible products, design patents for ornamental designs or patterns applied to manufactured goods, and plant patents for discoveries, inventions or asexual reproductions of new plant species.
Duration of Copyright Protection Vs. Patent Protection
As of 2012, artistic works created after 1978 are automatically covered by copyright protection for the life of the author, with an additional 95 years of protection after the author's death for published works, i.e. artistic works in the public domain, and an additional 70 years of protection after the author's death for non-published works. By contrast, utility and plant patents filed after June 8, 1995 are protected for 20 years from the application date, subject to payment of maintenance fees. Design patents are protected for 14 years from the application date, but no maintenance fees are required.
Which Form of Protection is Needed?
A good way to distinguish these two different types of intellectual property is as follows: you patent "ideas" and copyright "works of art." As discussed above, "ideas" and "works of art" have broad meanings for these purposes, but viewing intellectual property through those lenses provides a solid understanding. For example, an original piece of music would be eligible for copyright protection because you are protecting a work of art, while an invention that allows you to play a recording of that piece of music may be eligible for patent protection because you are protecting an idea.
References & Resources
- The Free Legal Dictionary: Copyright
- The Free Legal Dictionary: Patent
- CNN Money: Patent Versus Copyright -- Protecting Your Creations
- U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright in General
- USTPO.gov: Patents -- What Is a Patent?
- USTPO.gov: Patents
- The 'Lectric Law Library: Answers To Frequently Asked Patent Questions
- Legal Information Institute: 35 USC § 41 -- Patent Fees; Patent and Trademark Search Systems
- The 'Lectric Law Library: Filing for a Copyright
- USTPO.gov: Nonprovisional (Utility) Patent Application Filing Guide
- United States Copyright Office: Duration of Coypright
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images