The Difference Between Copyrights, Trademarks and Patents

Copyright registration is easy (no need for a lawyer) and inexpensive, Dr. Evans said. You can do it yourself online, and fees are currently $65 for most registrations, but can be as low as $45. To get started, visit copyright.gov.

When most people think of trademarks, they think of brand names like Coca-Cola, Apple or McDonald’s. These are good examples, but the category is even broader.

“A trademark protects a word, phrase, symbol or device — the mark — used in commerce to identify and distinguish one product from another,” Dr. Evans said. The slogan “I’m lovin’ it” is a trademark of McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola was granted a trademark on the design of its curved glass bottles.

Trademarks help businesses and the public by making the differences between products clear. Anyone can start a soda company, but only one soda can be called Coca-Cola. There are many hotel chains, but only one is called the Four Seasons. There are many cafe companies, but only one Starbucks. There are many airlines, but only one Delta.

But just because a company has a trademark for one type of product doesn’t mean other companies can’t use the same name for a different type of product.

It all boils down to “whether the defendant’s use is likely to confuse a consumer,” Dr. Evans said. “For example, someone could have a McDonald’s auto parts because consumers are not likely to be confused as to the source of the goods or expect Big Macs to be served.” This is why Delta Dental, Delta Air Lines and Delta faucets can coexist. Their businesses are different enough that consumers aren’t likely to be confused.

There are only 45 trademark categories for goods and services, which means similar items are usually combined into a class. But it’s not always obvious which class your product or service belongs in. For example, Class 29 includes “preserved, frozen, dried and cooked fruits and vegetables,” but doesn’t include baby food, which is in Class 5. Class 13 includes fireworks, but not matches.