What’s the difference between ©, ®, and ™?

This is an example of writing I’ve done for Brand-Directions.

We’ve all seen the symbols representing Copyright©, Registered Trademark® and boring, old regular Trademark™. But how many of us really know how to use them?

  • Copyright© is what protects tangible works like writings, songs, and artwork. It gives the creator the right to reproduce those works as they see fit. It prevents others from doing so.
  • Trademark™ protects things like slogans and logos used to identify the source of goods.

Here’s an example that may help. Sally writes a series of books called Sally’s Simple Guides. She writes guides on cooking, spelunking, brain surgery and several other topics. The content of her books—the words and images—can be protected by copyright. But, the phrase, Sally’s Simple Guide, and any logos associated with her brand fall under trademark.


Anything you produce is automatically under copyright as soon as it is created. Sally’s book covers can bear the phrase © 2014 Sally Smith. While copyright is automatic, it’s a good idea to register claims with the US Copyright Office. This enters the copyright into the public record and allows it to be used as evidence in a court of law. 1

Copyrights do not protect ideas, products, methods, systems or information. Those kinds of protections generally fall under patent law.

Trademark and Registered Trademark

Anyone can trademark something that distinguishes a brand. Sally can add ™ to her logo, tag line and anything she wants, without filing any paperwork. It is simply a claim. The next step is getting that claim registered with the U.S. Trademark Office. This will allow her to use the registered trademark ® symbol. More importantly, this is what allows her to bring legal action against someone who infringes on her trademark.

Other Protections

There are also other less used symbols and types of protection. Sound recordings have a special kind of copyright called phonorecord.

Most people do not realize that trademarks are only for products, while service marks are for services. This doesn’t really matter because like trademarks, unregistered service marks provide little legal protection. To make it even more confusing, once a service mark is registered, it is represented with the ® symbol.

There is also a legal term called trade dress. Trade dress is what protects the visual appearance of things that identify a brand. It can apply to the aesthetics of products, packaging, or even buildings. For example, the large, golden arches McDonalds incorporates into some of their buildings can be considered trade dress because it helps to identify its brand.


There are areas where protections overlap. For example, Dr. Peter Venkman is a character in the movie Ghost Busters. Characters are part of the movie content and could fall under copyright. However, the image of Dr. Peter Venkman is also a way by which the Ghost Busters brand is identified. So, it could also fall under trademark.

How long do protections last?

Another distinction between trademark and copyright is how long they last. Copyrighted material created after 1977 is protected for 70 years after the death of the creator. After the time is up, the work enters the public domain. 3

An interesting aside—longer periods of time now apply to corporations, largely due to lobbying from Walt Disney. The earliest Mickey Mouse movies would have fallen into public domain if U.S. copyright laws hadn’t changed in 1998. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, became known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act by critics of the law.

Trademarks last as long as they are used and defended. That brings up another important aspect of rights protection.

How are rights actually protected?

You are the one who must defend your copyrighted and trademarked material. Nothing magic happens when you add symbols to your products and packaging. The symbols are just ways of putting the public on notice that you intend to fight for your rights.

Registering your claims with the government isn’t magic either. Registering only provides you with more tools to defend yourself. If someone infringes on your copyrighted or trademarked material, you will have to take them to court and fight it out!

I’m not a lawyer. Heck, I’m barely a marketing professional. So here are some sources for the legal information in this article.

1 http://copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#automatic

2 http://www.uspto.gov/faq/trademarks.jsp#_Toc275426681

3 http://www.stopfakes.gov/faqs/how-long-does-patent-trademark-or-copyright-protection-last