What is the difference between a trademark, patent, copyright, business name, and webpage domain?

Trademarks, patents, and copyrights are different types of intellectual property. Each one typically protects a different aspect of something your business may do, so it’s important that you understand how they differ. Especially if you want to secure federal protection for your intellectual property assets.

Very generally, a trademark is a brand used on goods and services. A patent typically protects inventions, like new engines and solar panels. A copyright typically protects original artistic and literary works, like songs and movies and books. Although trademarks, patents, and copyrights can all be used together, the protections they provide are not the same. They’re all equally important and protect different parts of your intellectual property portfolio. For example, if you invent a new type of vacuum cleaner, you might apply for a patent to protect the invention itself. You could apply to register a trademark to protect the brand name of the vacuum cleaner. And you might register a copyright for the TV commercial you use to market the product.

A trademark is generally a word, phrase, slogan, symbol, design, or combination thereof, that identifies the source of your goods and services and distinguishes them from the goods and services of another party. That is, a trademark lets consumers know that the goods or services come only from you and not from someone else. A registered trademark tells your clients that you’re unique—that you’re the only one who owns your name, logo, and tagline for the products or services you offer. That “R” with the circle around it ® prevents anyone else from using anything similar to it unless they want to invite a lawsuit. Essentially, think about it this way: a trademark is a brand. It distinguishes your goods and services from those of your competitors. It helps consumers decide what to buy when choosing between similar or related products. To enjoy the nationwide rights offered by a federal trademark registration, you must file a trademark application and receive a registration from the USPTO.

A domain name is the web address that identifies a website and sometimes can function as a trademark. Registering a trademark is different than registering a domain name. Trademarks are federally registered through the USPTO; domain names are registered through a domain name registrar. They are not the same thing. One identifies the source of goods and services; the other is a web address. Registration of a domain name with a domain name registrar does not give you trademark rights. In fact, if you register a domain name with a domain name registrar that includes the trademark of another party, you may have to surrender that domain name. However, sometimes a domain name can also function as a trademark, so long as the domain name is used in such a way that it also identifies the source of particular goods and services.

A business name is just that: it is simply the name under which you do business in a particular state or jurisdiction. However, a business name registration with your state does not grant you trademark rights; it merely means that a particular state allows you to do business under that name. A business name can also be a trademark, and much like a domain name, it all depends on how you use it. If you use your business name to identify the source of your goods and services and distinguish them from the goods and services of another party, that’s trademark use. For example, an LLC basically tells the government that your personal assets are separate from your business’ assets. It comes in handy for taxation purposes or if your company ever experiences issues including a lawsuit, debt, or bankruptcy.

Think of an LLC and a registered trademark like two different relationships. The LLC is one between your business and the government, while a trademark is another relationship between you and your clients or customers. What sets these two apart is the level of protection they provide. LLCs can only protect your business statewide. It doesn’t stop someone else from registering the same name in another state. A federal trademark, on the other hand, provides you with nationwide protection—which means nobody else can register the same name you did. Our advice: An LLC is definitely a useful tool to have in business. But if your goal is to protect and monetize your brand, a trademark is an absolute must-have.