Updated November 12, 2020:

Patents, typically utility patents, and copyrights are both types of intellectual property that grant rights to creators and inventors and protect their work from being exploited without their permission but differ in the type of property they protect.

Protecting Your Ideas

Business success hinges on ideas. Without an original idea, a business will struggle to turn a profit. But what happens when another business steals that idea? What protects a business from other people trying to take its money-making products or strategies and turn them into their own? Most companies have two options: patents or copyrights. Choosing between applying for patent protection or registering your work for copyright comes down to what it is you're trying to protect.

Copyrights cover artistic and intellectual works like books, songs, plays, and even computer software. Patents protect inventions and the way an item is used (utility patent) or how it looks (design patent). According to the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (USPTO), a patent grants an inventor the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling an invention. A copyright protects literary, musical, and other artistic works, whether it's published or not. Typically, copyright protection is filed by individuals or artists, but there are certainly business cases for copyright protection -- especially for companies looking to protect their business model or marketing ideas. Both patents and copyrights essentially prove that you are the creator of the item or idea and declare that no one can take it from you.

Why Are Copyrights and Patents Important?

Copyrights and patents provide legal grounds for ownership and the right to pursue legal recourse if someone infringes on your idea. Otherwise, people can go around stealing ideas and creations and selling them as their own. It's hard to prove that one person had an idea over another, which is why most artists and businesses apply for protection the second they create something new.

How Long Is My Idea Protected?

When you apply for copyright protection for your work, you only have to do it once per century. According to CNN Money, all artistic work created after 1978 is protected for the entire life of the author plus 95 years if the work is published. Even if the work isn't published, it's still protected for the life of the author plus 70 years after they pass.

A patent protects the invention for 20 years, and there are even short-term patents that only last a couple of years. This allows industries to develop new standards with more efficient models that benefit the customers and save resources.

Copyright applications are used to file claims that protect various forms of creative and intellectual expression. This protects the creators of the work from copycats or fellow creators looking to steal their ideas.

There are specific rights that come with filing for copyright protection. These include the rights to:

  • Reproduce the work (like a musician at a concert).

  • Announce the creation of the work and talk about it with the general public.

  • Make adaptations or copies of the work.

For the most part, copyright law ensures the creator owns the majority of profits that come from artistic creation -- unless the creation is used in satire.

Even though copyright protection is automatic, if you skip registration, then you cannot file a federal lawsuit to stop the infringement of your work. The registration process is fairly simple. The U.S. Copyright office provides registration forms for literary works, visual works, performing arts, and sound recordings. As long as you fill out some basic paperwork with the copyright office within three months of the work's creation, you will receive protection and can hold other people accountable for stealing your work.

Most people are already familiar with the idea of copyright protection, even if they're not familiar with that it protects. Anything that has a "©" next to it is protected by copyright. Artists and creators can place the "©" symbol to let people know that it's protected, but it's not a requirement for copyright material. As long as the paperwork is filed and approved by the copyright office, the owners can claim copyright even if they don't have a "©" on their work.

Applying for a Patent

If you're not trying to protect the expression of an idea, but rather the idea or product itself, then you should consider filing for a patent instead. Here are the three different options for small businesses when they're choosing patents:

  • Utility Patent: this is for new inventions for machines or manufacturers or for an improvement on a previous invention. (For example Google Glass)

  • Design Patent: this is for remodels from the design of a particular existing product. In this case, the function is the same, but the appearance is what is protected. (For example, a new bicycle design that's easier to pedal)

  • Plant Patent: this is for the discovery (or invention in today's labs) of a new plant that reproduces asexually.

Not only can you protect something that you create, but you can also protect the process to create it. In a corporate world where companies are constantly trying to save money, optimization patents can be as valuable as the product patents themselves. Filing a patent can be complex, so use a patent lawyer who can help you navigate through the forms, research, and other requirements.

When Should You File for Both?

In some cases, a single product can have multiple patentable features. For example, a box of tissues might have a patent on the tissues themselves along with the resealable top. These are two separate items that need two separate patents.

While most patent and copyright laws seem black and white, there are some gray areas. With software programs, for example, the actual code of the software is protected by copyright and has the same protections as a book or piece of art. However, the function of the code is protected by a patent, because the company uses their system to provide a service or product. This leads many software companies to apply for protection on both sides to keep their competitors away.

Even if you think you understand what kind of protection you need, make sure to consult a lawyer before starting the application process. Post your copyright or patent request on the UpCounsel Marketplace to get started. Our lawyers will be able to help you file for the right protection so you're covered -- no matter who tries to steal your work.