Do you know the difference between patent copyright trademark and trade secret?

Navigating the intricate world of intellectual property (IP) can sometimes feel like trying to decipher a foreign language.

These terms, often used interchangeably by the uninitiated, play critical roles in protecting our innovations, creative works, brands, and even secret recipes.

However, each serves a unique purpose and carries its distinct set of rules and protections.

Let’s embark on a journey to differentiate between patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets—the pillars of IP—and why understanding their nuances is crucial for innovators and businesses alike.

Dive in to decode the lexicon of intellectual assets!

What is Copyright?


Copyright is a legal concept that grants creators of original works exclusive rights to their intellectual property.

It allows them to protect and control how their work is used, ensuring they receive recognition and financial benefit from their creations.

Key Aspects:

  1. Nature of Protection:
    • Copyright protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. For instance, while you can’t copyright the idea of a love story, you can copyright a specific novel or screenplay about a love story.
    • It grants the copyright holder exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and license their work.
  2. Duration:
    • Typically, in most jurisdictions, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. However, for works like movies or creations by companies, the duration may vary.
  3. Automatic Protection:
    • Copyright protection is automatic, meaning as soon as an original work is created and fixed in a tangible medium (like written on paper, painted on canvas, saved on a computer), it’s copyrighted.
    • However, registering the work with the appropriate authority, such as the U.S. Copyright Office in the United States, can offer additional legal benefits.
  4. Limitations:
    • Copyright isn’t absolute. There are certain limitations, such as “fair use” in the U.S., which allow limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission.
    • Examples might include criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.
    • Over time, copyrighted works eventually enter the “public domain”, which means they are no longer protected by copyright and can be freely used by anyone.
  5. Global Differences:
    • While the basic principles of copyright are recognised internationally, the specifics can vary from one country to another.
    • Many countries are part of international treaties like the Berne Convention, which sets minimum standards for copyright protection.

Novels, songs, movies, paintings, photographs, and software are all types of works that can be protected by copyright.

In essence, copyright serves to foster creativity and innovation, ensuring that creators can benefit from their works and have control over how they are used and shared.

What is Patent?


A patent is a set of exclusive rights granted by a government or an official authority to an inventor for a specific period of time.

This grant allows the inventor to exclude others from making, selling, using, and importing an invention for the duration of the patent.

Key Aspects:

  1. Nature of Protection:
    • Patents protect new inventions or discoveries. This can include products, processes, or methods that are novel, non-obvious, and useful.
    • It offers protection against unauthorised manufacture, sale, or use of the patented invention.
  2. Duration:
    • Typically, a patent lasts for 20 years from the date of filing. However, in some cases, like for certain pharmaceuticals, extensions may be granted.
  3. Disclosure Requirement:
    • A fundamental aspect of the patent system is that the inventor must fully disclose how the invention works.
    • This promotes the advancement of science and technology, as after patent expiration, others can build upon the disclosed knowledge.
  4. Territorial Nature:
    • Patents are territorial, meaning they only provide protection within the borders of the issuing country.
    • For global protection, inventors need to apply for patents in each desired country, or utilise systems like the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) for a more streamlined international filing process.
  5. Application and Examination:
    • To obtain a patent, an inventor must submit a detailed application to the patent office of the relevant country.
    • The office will then examine the application to ensure it meets all criteria for patentability. This process can be lengthy and expensive.
  6. Maintenance:
    • Even after a patent is granted, in many jurisdictions, annual maintenance or renewal fees are required to keep the patent in force.
  7. Infringement and Enforcement:
    • If others produce or sell the patented invention without permission, it can be considered infringement. The patent holder can take legal action against the infringer. However, it’s up to the patent holder to monitor and enforce their patent rights.
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New machinery designs, chemical compounds, biotechnological inventions, software (in some jurisdictions), and unique business methods are all examples of things that might be patented.

What is Trade Secret?

Trade Secret

A trade secret refers to confidential information that provides a business advantage over competitors who do not know or use that information.

Trade secrets can encompass a wide range of subjects, including formulas, practices, processes, designs, instruments, and even a compilation of information.

Key Aspects:

  1. Nature of Protection:
    • Unlike patents or copyrights, trade secrets are protected without any formal registration procedure or public disclosure. Their value is in their secrecy.
    • Protection is indefinite as long as the information remains confidential. Once publicly disclosed, a trade secret may be lost forever.
  2. Requirements:
    • For information to qualify as a trade secret, it generally must meet three criteria:
      1. It must be secret, i.e., not generally known or readily ascertainable.
      2. It must confer some economic benefit or competitive advantage to its holder because it is secret.
      3. Reasonable efforts must have been made to maintain its secrecy.
  3. Protection Mechanisms:
    • Businesses often use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), non-compete clauses, and physical and digital security measures to protect trade secrets from being disclosed or misappropriated.
  4. Loss of Protection:
    • If a trade secret becomes public, there’s no recourse to regain its secretive status, unless the information was disclosed through illegal means, such as theft, espionage, or breach of contract. Legal action can then be taken against the parties responsible for the breach.
  5. Comparison with Patents:
    • An essential distinction between trade secrets and patents is the nature of protection. While patents protect an invention by public disclosure (in exchange for a temporary monopoly), trade secrets protect information by ensuring it remains undisclosed. Sometimes businesses must decide whether to seek a patent or maintain an invention as a trade secret. Each option has its own advantages and risks.
  6. Global Differences:
    • Although the essence of trade secrets is recognised globally, the specifics of trade secret laws and their enforcement can vary from one country to another.

Famous examples include the formula for Coca-Cola and the recipe for KFC’s fried chicken. But trade secrets can also cover less renowned items like customer lists, manufacturing processes, or proprietary software algorithms.

Difference Between Patent Copyright Trademark and Trade secret


Nature: A patent is a set of exclusive rights granted by a government to an inventor for a fixed period, typically 20 years, for a new, original, and useful invention. This invention can be a product, process, or a novel method.

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  • Offers protection against unauthorised manufacture, sale, or use of the invention.
  • Once expired, the invention becomes public domain, and anyone can reproduce or sell the product or process.

Requirement for Protection:

  • The invention must be new, non-obvious, and useful.
  • Requires full disclosure of the invention, including how to make and use it.
  • Needs a formal application and approval process, often lengthy and expensive.

Examples: New machinery, drug formulas, technological innovations.


Nature: A copyright protects original works of authorship, ensuring creators have exclusive rights to their work for a set period. This covers literature, music, film, art, and some other intellectual works.


  • Protects the original expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves.
  • Gives the copyright holder exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, or license the work.
  • Typically lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, though this can vary based on factors like type of work and geography.

Requirement for Protection:

  • The work must be original and fixed in a tangible medium.
  • Registration is not mandatory, but registering with the copyright office provides legal advantages.

Examples: Books, songs, movies, paintings, software code.

Trade Secret

Nature: A trade secret is confidential information that provides a business advantage over competitors who do not know or use that secret.


  • Protection is indefinite as long as the secret remains confidential.
  • There’s no formal registration process, but businesses must take reasonable steps to maintain secrecy.
  • Unlike patents and copyrights, once a trade secret becomes public, there’s no legal recourse unless it was disclosed through illegal means, such as theft or breach of contract.

Requirement for Protection:

  • Information must be secret, provide economic benefit from not being generally known, and be subject to reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy.

Examples: Coca-Cola’s recipe, customer lists, manufacturing processes.

Read more: Copyright vs Trademark vs Patent


The realms of patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets form the cornerstone of intellectual property rights, each safeguarding distinct types of creations and intangible assets.

Patents shield novel inventions, ensuring innovators have a temporary monopoly on their groundbreaking ideas.

Copyrights, on the other hand, protect the unique expression of ideas in literary, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.

Trademarks serve to distinguish and protect the identity of brands, signifying the origin of products and services.

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Meanwhile, trade secrets offer protection to proprietary information that derives its value from being kept out of the public domain.

Understanding these distinctions is paramount for creators, innovators, and businesses aiming to protect and capitalise on their intellectual endeavors.

In an age where knowledge and innovation drive economies, it’s essential to recognise and respect these rights, ensuring a balanced ecosystem where creativity flourishes, and businesses thrive.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the primary purpose of each intellectual property type?

Patent: Protects new and original inventions or processes, allowing inventors a temporary monopoly on their creation.

Copyright: Safeguards original works of authorship, such as literature, music, and art, ensuring creators control and benefit from their work.

Trademark: Defends symbols, names, and slogans used to identify and distinguish brands or goods.

Trade Secret: Preserves confidential information that offers a business advantage over competitors who are unaware of or don’t use it.

2. How long does protection last for each type?

Patent: Typically 20 years from the date of filing.

Copyright: Generally the life of the author plus 70 years, but it varies based on the type of work and jurisdiction.

Trademark: Indefinite, as long as it’s in use and its registration is renewed at the required intervals.

Trade Secret: Indefinite, as long as the information remains confidential.

3. Do all these types require formal registration?

Patent: Yes, a detailed application must be approved by the patent office.

Copyright: No, protection is automatic upon creation, though registration provides legal advantages.

Trademark: Not always, but registration offers stronger protection and exclusive rights in disputes.

Trade Secret: No, but businesses must take measures to maintain the information’s secrecy.

4. Can an idea itself be protected?

Ideas alone cannot be protected. However, the expression of an idea can be copyrighted, the implementation of an idea can be patented, and the branding or representation of an idea can be trademarked.

Trade secrets protect the confidentiality of certain beneficial business information, not ideas per se.

5. What happens when the protection expires or is breached?

Patent: Once expired, the invention becomes public domain, allowing anyone to reproduce or sell it.

Copyright: After expiration, the work enters the public domain, meaning it’s free for public use.

Trademark: If not renewed or defended, others can use it, potentially diluting or tarnishing the brand’s identity.

Trade Secret: If disclosed (unless through illegal means), it can lose its value and protection, with little recourse for the holder.