Trademark vs. copyright: Which one does your business need?

Property protector

If you’re new to being an entrepreneur, it’s not uncommon to get the definitions of trademarks and copyrights confused with each other. Trademark vs. copyright? Which one does your business actually need to file for — or do you need both?

Before you decide to register for one or the other, it’s important to understand what a trademark and a copyright can do for your small business.

Let’s take a look at defining trademarks and copyrights, the differences between the terms, and how they can benefit your business.

Trademark vs. copyright for branding

Does your business have an original phrase, logo, design, or tagline? Unique words, designs and symbols are considered to be trademarks, since these distinctive marks help differentiate your brand from competitors.

Federal registration of a trademark means that you will need to pay a fee and do a bit of paperwork.

While some entrepreneurs may choose to skip trademarking their brand’s assets, taking the time to do so is worth it for your business.


Once you have successfully registered your trademark, you can legally claim the mark and assert that your original ideas are unique to ensure nobody plagiarizes or copies your brand’s assets. Your trademark also helps your brand build credibility with consumers and, best of all, the mark doesn’t expire. If you continue to file the proper paperwork and pay the necessary fees, the trademark is yours to keep as long as it is active.

Curious about what this ® means?

If you register your trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), this symbol is your designation and is used after your mark.

Businesses that have not registered their marks use TM for goods or SM for services. This signifies that the “common law” trademark or service mark has been adopted by the business.

Ready to register your trademark? Here’s a quick checklist to get familiar with the process:

  • Conduct a search of existing registered and pending trademark applications. This ensures that your desired mark is available and not already in use by another party. If you don’t conduct a thorough search, you could potentially infringe on another mark.
  • After you have determined that your mark is unique, file a trademark application and pay the associated fee to register the trademark.
  • While you wait, you might want to conduct a trademark watch. This essentially “watches” over other applications that may be registering similar words, symbols, or designs to better protect your mark from infringement.

Trademark vs. copyright for protecting authorship

Are you familiar with the term “original works of authorship?” These can include literary works such as books or poetry; dramatic works like movies, plays or songs; sound recordings; or architectural, sculptural and artistic works. If this sounds like some of your brand’s creative offerings, then you’ll want to file for a copyright.

Copyrights protect original works of authorship and the author’s right to reproduce, distribute, perform, adapt and display said works.

No one is allowed to infringe on these original works of authorship if an individual registers a copyright with a public record of their work.

The individual is allowed to sue for copyright infringement those that try to copy their creation.

Trademark Vs Copyright SymbolMuch like trademarks, once a copyright has been registered it also has a long life cycle. However, copyrights don’t last forever. Works that are created by an individual are only protected for the rest of the author’s life and an additional 70 years. Works that are anonymous or created under a pseudonym are protected for 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation. Copyrights also have their own unique designation symbol that looks like this: ©. However, you aren’t required to use it.

The rules of registering a copyright vs. a trademark are similar. Registering a copyright means undertaking the following:

  • Conduct a search through a copyright database. This search may take more time and effort than a trademark search since you are looking through music and art, but you will still be able to determine if anything similar to your original works of authorship has already been registered.
  • If your work has proven to be original, file a copyright application and pay the associated fee. Along with your application, you will need to send in a copy of the work you are planning to register.
  • Be patient. Copyright registration tends to take a bit more time than trademark registration, due to the nature of the work. By mail, expect the process to take 13 months. If you file electronically, it is shortened to eight months.

Depending on your brand’s offerings, you may find yourself filing just a trademark vs. copyright application. You might even file for both!

While filing does take a little extra research, time and money to do, it’s worth the extra effort to keep your intellectual property protected and exclusively yours.

The above content should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Always consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific legal or tax situation.

Image by: alikins via Flickr / CC by 2.0

Deborah Sweeney
Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation is a leader in online legal filing services for entrepreneurs and businesses, providing start-up bundles that include corporation and LLC formation, registered agent, DBA, and trademark & copyright filing services. MyCorporation does all the work, making the business formation and maintenance quick and painless, so business owners can focus on what they do best. Follow her on Google+ and on Twitter @mycorporation.