What are the differences between different forms of Intellectual Property (IP)?

Differences Between Patents, Copyrights, Trademarks, Trade Dress, and Trade Secrets

Intellectual property (IP) is generally intangible property resulting from some degree of creation. The various forms of IP are distinct and offer different protections under patent, copyright, trademark, trade dress, trade secret, and other related laws.


A patent gives the inventor exclusive rights in the invention for a period of time, so that he or she can profit from the invention before the right to exploit it is available to the general public. Patents can be granted for plants and other life forms, designs of manufactured products, machines, processes, and combinations of matter. A patent protects inventions or discoveries and grants the patent holder (or patentee) the exclusive right to make, use, offer for sale, and sell inventions, including new and useful processes, machines, certain designs, and certain varieties of plants, for a period of 20 years (excluding design patents).


A copyright prevents others from copying, making derivative works of, performing, distributing, or selling copies or counterfeits of original works of authorship, such as music, lyrics, books, plays, poems, paintings, sculpture, photographs, architectural designs, and software. The creator of the work is generally considered to be the author of the work and is the owner of the copyright. An author of a work need not register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office to be protectable under copyright law. The work is generally protectable for the life of author plus 70 years.

Trademarks, Service Marks, and Logos

A trademark, service mark, or logo prevents others in the marketplace from using a confusingly similar name, symbol, or device to indicate the source of its goods or services. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others. Trademarks are generally protectable as long as they are used in commerce to distinctively indicate the source of the goods or service.

Trade Dress

Trade dress protection is similar to trademarks and can be used to identify and promote the non-functional aspects of a product or service. For example, the shape, color, and design of a product or its packaging can be trade dress. Likewise, the decor and color scheme of a restaurant or store also can be trade dress. Trade dress is generally protectable as long as it is distinctive and used in commerce to indicate the source of the goods or service.

Trade Secrets

A trade secret is any formula, process, design, or compilation of information, which is not generally ascertainable, by which a company can obtain an economic advantage over competitors or customers. In some states, a trade secret remains enforceable as long as reasonable efforts have been taken to keep it “secret.”

Intellectual Property Services

The following are services provided regarding intellectual property and related law:

You can find additional information in our IP Services Overview page or our Intellectual Property Quick Reference Guide.

See our Legal FAQs page for the answers to more intellectual property law questions.

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