Copyrights, Trademarks, Patents, and Trade Secrets

Posted by mitch on January 10, 2012

I was reading a forum where people were talking about the new Swivl and saw someone complaining about the name “Swivl” being too weak for a “copyright”. I’ve seen a lot of confusion about what the differences are between a copyright and a trademark, a copyright and a patent, and a patent and a trade secret. Briefly,

A copyright protects a work that is authored. In the case of a technology product, this includes the source code, the documentation, and also marketing materials such as the web site or datasheets.

A trademark protects a word or other way to identify a brand. In the case of a technology product, this includes the name of the company, the name of the product, and any logos or slogans tied to the brand identity. Trademarks may be claimed but unregistered (TM) or registered (R). Trademarks apply to a specific category of products or services, which is why it’s fine that we have Delta Airlines and Delta Faucets.

A patent protects inventions or discoveries. In the case of a technology product, this can be pretty broad—an algorithm used by the software1, a way to build a product, or some other invented technique.

A trade secret is something that is not revealed and kept intentionally secret because it is something of value. Companies must mark any information as confidential as part of reasonable efforts to keep such information secret. The classic example of this is the Coca-Cola formula. There is no protection of a trade secret if someone else can clean-room reverse engineer the secret.

There is a balance between patents and trade secrets; a patent provides broad protection but the science behind the invention must be disclosed in return for that protection—and the patent does eventually expire.

By no means are the above descriptions detailed, exhaustive, or legal advice, but they are brief and understandable. For more information, visit these pages:

Many thanks my friends and colleagues who reviewed this post prior to publishing.

1 When embodied in something real. And there’s the argument about whether or not software is real. Anyway, the goal of this post isn’t to debate this point.

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