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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Differences Between Copyrights and Patents: A Simple Guide

As a follow up to my post on why software is protected by copyright (rather than patents), here I examine the differences between patents and copyright.

This has been adapted from responses I gave on Yahoo! Answers.

What they protect:

  • Copyright protects original 'literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works'.
  • Patents protect inventions (methods/processes or products/composition of matter, or machines).

Requirements for protection:

  • Your work can be copyrighted as long as it is original.
  • In order for an invention to be patented, the inventor must prove that the invention is novel, inventive and useful. Jurisprudence (i.e. previous court decisions) define these requirements. The patent office determines whether an application meets these criteria.

How you get protection:

  • Copyright protection is automatic upon creation, although registration may be recommended to prove originality to either defend against or pursue an infringement claim. For registration offices around the world, click here.
  • Patents require registration through a patent application, which goes through a costly, lengthy and laborious patent examination, during which the patent application is published.

Duration of copyright protection:

  • Copyright protection is for the lifetime of the author and an additional 50 or 70 years (depending on the country) after the author's death. Also see here.
  • Patent duration is shorter than copyrights (around 20 years, depending on the country and other factors).

What acts constitute infringement:

  • Copyright prevents others from reproducing, adapting, distributing, publicly displaying or performing a copyrighted work without permission or license from the copyright owner.
  • Patents prevent others from using, manufacturing, selling or importing the method or product without a license from the patent owner.

Where your work is protected:

Other links:
US Copyright Office FAQs
US Patent and Trademark Office


  1. Registering the creation with a copyright office is often recommended, however, as it can help clarify any future disputes as to ownership. Is PCT patent applications the same with copyright?

    1. Copyright registration is particularly important in the US, where it is a prerequisite for filing a claim, and where it can constitute prima facie evidence of originality as defense against an infringement suit.

      Not sure what you mean by your question on PCT patent applications and comparing them to copyright. A PCT patent application allows you to initiate a patent application that you may take into the next phase (national phase) in various countries, if you so desire. Filing a PCT application will grant you a priority date, which does help you stake your claim against other patent applications. I suppose in that sense, it is like copyright registration.


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