Differences for Trademarks & Rights Reserved

by Stephanie Dube Dwilson

"Rights reserved" is a mostly obsolete legal term that offers little protection.

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Businesses and individuals who have created products, logos or other identifying symbols want to protect their hard work from being used by other people. Trademarks and the phrase "rights reserved" are both used to establish legal protection. However, trademarks provide greater protection and more security than the phrase "rights reserved."

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A trademark is "any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination" of these things used to identify a product or service provided by an individual or business. The purpose of a trademark is to keep consumers from being confused when different individuals or businesses provide similar products or services. Trademark protection arises automatically once the mark is used in commerce; however, additional protections are gained from registering the trademark.

Rights Reserved

"Rights reserved," sometimes written as "all rights reserved," is a phrase typically accompanied by copyright or trademark language, or a copyright or trademark symbol, and attached to a product, indicating its ownership by an individual or business and the prohibition of its use by another party. Thus, the phrase is routinely used to provide notice of either copyright or trademark protection. Although historically useful, the phrase is now relatively obsolete and does not bring the user additional legal protections.

History of 'Rights Reserved'

"Rights reserved" originated from the 1910 Buenos Aires Convention in which a copyright treaty was established and signed by the United States and Latin American countries that created universal copyright protection among these countries. The treaty required that copyrighted works include a statement reserving their property rights in order to enjoy copyright protection in countries that were a party to the treaty. The treaty became obsolete when these countries eventually joined the Berne Convention. This copyright treaty stipulated that protection would be automatically given without any required written reservation. However, the phrase was so widely used prior to Berne that many people today still write the phrase on copyrighted and trademarked works.

Notice of Ownership

Because trademark protection is automatically granted once a mark is used in commerce, writing "all rights reserved" next to the mark does not offer any additional legal protections. At most, the words provide notice to others and help defeat a claim that a third party did not know the mark was legally protected. However, using the "TM" trademark symbol is a more widely accepted practice for giving notice of trademark ownership.

Differences in Legal Protection

The phrase "rights reserved," while useful in certain situations, does not offer the same protection as a registered trademark and should not be regarded as a substitute for trademark protection. A registered trademark provides exclusive use throughout the United States, while an unregistered trademark is protected only in the geographic region where the mark is used in commerce. In addition, a registered trademark creates a public record and presumptive proof of ownership; can be used to register the trademark in foreign countries; and allows lawsuit claims of up to three times actual damages if the trademark is infringed upon.

Expanding Use of Rights Reserved

Although the legal advantages of the phrase "all rights reserved" are largely obsolete, other uses for the "rights reserved" language have become more commonplace through a project called Creative Commons. Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization created by a Harvard Law professor focused on creating a more inclusive copyright framework. A Creative Commons license provides for "some rights reserved" protection, offered at six varying levels. There is also a "no rights reserved" option that leaves works in the public domain for anyone to use. This area of the law is still growing and being defined.