How to Tell the Difference Between a Copyright and a Patent

How to Tell the Difference Between a Copyright and a Patent
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Copyrights vs. Patents

Many people know that copyrights and patents are both meant to protect intellectual property, but are not sure which are the different types of intellectual property covered by copyright and patent. What is the difference between copyright and patent, if they are both meant to protect intellectual property? For that matter, what is intellectual property?

WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization, attempts to oversee and regulate Intellectual Property worldwide. They say: “Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind: inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce.”

Copyright is the right of a creator or holder of a copyright to have exclusive rights over their works of an artistic or creative nature. The purpose of copyright is to allow them to gain reimbursement for any sales or distributions or derivative works based on their original work. To read about the copyright process see The Steps Involved in Applying for a Copyright.

What is a Patent? What is the Purpose of a Patent?

A patent protects the intellectual property contained in an invention. The purpose of a patent is to make sure either the inventor or whomever the inventor assigns the rights to are reimbursed for the time and effort contained in their invention, for a specified period of time.

A copyright is given for work of a creative or artistic nature which has been fixed in a medium. Patents are granted to inventions or discoveries which were not known before. Even though both copyright and patents are covered under the term intellectual property, they have important differences from each other. Read more about copyright in the article What is Copyright?

Copyrights now extend well beyond the life of a creator, so they can be bequeathed to someone else after the creator’s death. Patents must be applied for and awarded before the inventor gains exclusive rights, and those rights only exist for a limited time. However, a patent could be willed to someone by the inventor if it was still in effect.

Unlike copyright, inventing something does not provide automatic protection for the invention. Until the filing process has started, another person could patent the same invention, and then they would be the holder of the exclusive rights to the invention. Read more about patents in the article What is a Patent?

Google Patent search page

Patenting is a much more time consuming and expensive process than copyright, even if you are registering a copyright. It has a number of steps and requirements which must be completed before the application can be filed. These include searching through the database of the US Patent Office database for other patents already filed which are the same invention, or which are so similar that the new filing does not have enough novelty to get patented. The data base, and an electronic version of it are open to the public, and the parts online can also be searched through Google.

Copyright has the doctrine of fair use. This means minor portions of a copyrighted work can be used or cited by another person and as long as the use is acknowledged and it meets fair use criteria, no reimbursement to the creator is required. An example of this is the quote from the World Intellectual Property Organization, earlier in this article. Fair use is discussed in Title 17, Chapter 1, section 107 of the United States code, which covers copyright law. It is possible to infringe on a copyright, and the copyright holder can take the case to court for damages, but it does mean some use of some portions of copyrighted material is legal.

A patent means that the invention cannot be used without permission from the patent holder without infringement. The patent holder’s rights can be enforced by a court of law, which can award monetary damages from the infringement to be paid to the patent holder. While some use of copyrighted work is clearly fair use, and some may be more doubtful, depending on the amount of copyrighted material used, there are very few circumstances where unlicensed use of patented work is condoned, let alone considered legal. The US government will help protect American intellectual property.

Once the time covered by a copyright or patent has expired, the works move into the public domain.

What is Public Domain?

Public domain is the name for intellectual property which can be freely used without fee. Once the time period of right to exclusive use is over, whether of copyright or patent, the material moves into the public domain, where it can be freely used without the permission of its creator. In the case of copyright, that creator is almost certain to be dead.

A well known example of public domain is the 1913 Webster’s dictionary, based on the original written by Noah Webster. You can read about a squabble between book companies as to who had the rights to use the name Webster on their dictionary, and its various incarnations in public domain in Online Dictionaries- The Webster Dictionaries.

However, use of intellectual property, particularly written, visual or recorded media, should have its creator acknowledged if known, or it is plagiarism. If it is not known, acknowledgment of the fact that the source is not original material should still be made clear.

This post is part of the series: Understand Intellectual Property and the Differences Between Copyright and Patent

Copyrights and Patents both protect Intellectual Property. Do you know the definition of intellectual property? Understand how copyright and patent differ, the purpose of a patent vs. a copyright, and see what types of intellectual property are covered by each protection.

  1. Definition of Intellectual Property: It May Not Be What You Think
  2. What Is a Patent?
  3. Exploring Copyrights and Their Purposes
  4. The Differences Between a Copyright and a Patent
  5. Sample Employee Release of Intellectual Property Rights