In a very broad sense, trademarks and copyrights serve similar functions. They both act as pieces in the big puzzle that protect the rights of people and companies that make things. When you think of a brand, you usually think of the products and work produced by that brand: Warner Brothers Movies, Dyson Vacuums, Apple Computers. When we are talking about a trademark, the “thing” is a good or product; it is, very literally, a thing. In the case of a copyright, the “thing” we are talking about is a work of original authorship, such as a book or a movie.
What is a Trademark?
A trademark, as its name implies, is a mark: something tangible. It can be a name, or words, or a symbol or any combination of name, word and symbol, and sometimes the thing itself. You can often spot a trademark by the letters TM next to the trademark (for unregistered trademarks) or by the registered trademark symbol ® which is used to indicate a registered trademark. I am not going to tell you how to register a trademark here.
A trademark is used to identify the origin of a good or product. This can be a product, such as a pair of sneakers, a toaster, tires on a car, or toothpaste in a tube, basically any “good” in the physical sense of the word. A trademark indicates the company or person that is the source of the good.
Want to know where that stapler on your desk comes from? Look at it, and if you can find a TM or ® next to a name or picture then you have just found the company that provided your stapler. The same is true of the can of soda you might be drinking, the socks on your feet and the product in your hair. Look for the trademark symbol on the package or the thing itself and the name or logo next to the trademark symbol will tell you where that thing comes from. If you are a business and you are making staplers, like the one you just looked at, putting a trademark on it lets the customer know that you made that stapler. But it gets bigger: the thing itself can become your trademark and symbol. I'm sure you know what a Coca-Cola bottle looks like and I don't think you have ever seen any other drink (legally) sold in that bottle. The actual shape of the Coca-Cola bottle is trademarked!
What is a Copyright?
A copyright can be thought of as a shorthand way of describing the set of rights that are held by a copyright owner. The rights afforded by a copyright can include (but are not limited to) the right to reproduce, to distribute, or, if applicable, to perform the work that the copyright relates to. The “work” that a copyright relates to is a work of original authorship, such as an original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work, as well as “certain other intellectual works.”
A copyright is why you are not allowed to borrow Harry Potter and the deathly hallows from your library and start photocopying it and selling it on the internet. You need permission from the book's copyright holder to do something like that. This is why the song sharing program Napster caused such a stir.
The Copyright Notice
What you may be more familiar with, at least in the non-abstract sense, is the copyright notice. A copyright notice is placed on a work to inform the world of copyright ownership. A copyright notice generally contains the word copyright or the symbol ©, the name of the copyright owner and the first year of publication. To see a copyright notice in action, crack open any book and within a few pages of the front cover you will usually find one.
A copyright notice lets the person reading a book know who holds the copyright for that book. But, this is not always a straightforward path to the person who wrote the book: in cases where an employee produces a work as part of their employment, the employer may sometimes be considered to be the author. Either way, a copyright notice helps you trace back to the work's origins.
Trademarks and Copyrights: Further Reading
Identifying the source of a product or work of authorship plays an important part in laying the foundation for protecting the rights of the Trademark or Copyright holder and it also helps build a brand identity. By identifying the source of the product or work, you announce to the world what you do and how you do it. Everyone knows that Steven King writes horror, just like everyone knows what the MacDonald's Golden Arches look like and that you can go there to get a Big Mac.
If you are having trouble sleeping and you would like to learn more about Trademarks and Copyrights, I recommend going to the United States Patent and Trademark Office Website where you can learn about Trademarks as well as Service Marks and Patents (for those of you who are inventors). For learning about Copyrights, you can go to the United States Copyright Office.
If you want to see the actual trademark for the Coca-Cola Bottle from back in 1960, go to the USPTO Trademark Electronic Search System and then go to the basic word mark search. Use the search term 72069873 and set the field to Serial or Registration Number.