What a Copyright or Trademark Covers

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Copyright literally gives your business the right to control who makes copies of its created works -- anything from computer software to songs. Trademarks are distinctive words or symbols that mark a product as coming from your company. You can own trademarks and copyrights without registering with the government. If you do register, the U.S. Copyright Office covers copyright, while the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office handles trademarks.

Created Works

Copyright protection embraces written works, movies, songs, computer software, photographs and architecture. Written works can include your company's press releases, articles and instruction manuals. Your copyright kicks in automatically once a work is finished, even if it's not published. It doesn't apply to ideas that aren't in finished form; for example, your concept for a new software isn't copyrightable until you create it. Copyright also doesn't protect facts and information, though it may protect the way you present them.


If someone infringes on your company's copyright, there are both civil and criminal penalties. Criminal penalties kick in if someone violates your copyright for profit or puts a copyrighted item online for others to download. You can only file a civil suit for damages if you register your work with the Copyright Office. If the infringer loses his civil or criminal case, the infringement stops and you can have any remaining illegal copies destroyed.


Trademarks protect obvious distinguishing features that separate your products from the competition: a distinctive product name such as "Coca-Cola" or a corporate symbol such as Tony the Tiger. If you offer services rather than products, the technical term is "service mark," but trademark is often used for both. Trademark can stretch to cover "trade dress," a packaging feature such as the Coke bottle's traditional shape. You cannot, however, trademark a practical or functional feature of your product.

Mark Limits

Trademarks have to stand out. A store name such as Bookstore is descriptive, but it's unlikely to get trademark coverage because it's generic. Marks are often limited by geography: there's no conflict if companies in Los Angeles and Boston use the same mark unless one of them registers it with the federal government. Two companies can also use similar trademarks if they're in separate industries. Unlike copyright, you lose your mark if you don't use it regularly.


About the Author

A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.

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