It's impossible to expect every researcher coming to SIBL to know the differences between the four main types of Intellectual Property (IP) protection. We have found that Patent, Copyright and Trademark, by attorney Richard Stim, is an excellent resource for learning about and comparing these laws.
When readers come to SIBL, the New York Public Library's representative to the Patent and Trademark Depository Library (PTDL) Program of the USPTO, and are uncertain what form of IP protection they want, Patent, Copyright and Trademark is a top source we like to recommend. This book offers in a single volume help to distinguish between the four IP types, presenting succinct overviews of each IP area with relevant definitions, copies of forms when appropriate, and sections of the key statutes with brief descriptive annotations. While there are many other resources, both in books and online (including official goverment websites), that cover IP basics and individual IP topics, this volume is often the perfect starting place for you to determine which type or types of IP protection may apply to your "idea."
Now, while I defer to Mr. Stim for his more technical and detailed descriptions, in order to try to put in context future entries about SIBL as a PTDL, as well as about other IP topics and IP research, here is a very quick overview of the most common forms of IP.
The four major types of IP protection (in the order addressed here) are Copyright, Trademark, Trade Secrets and Patents. Each of them is a kind of monopoly created or sanctioned by the government, and as such has a financial value to its owner (since they're property), and a monetary impact on other businesses and the public.
Copyright: U.S. Federal copyright laws protect original, creative works of authorship from being copied in whole or in part, or otherwise used differently from how their creators or owners intend. Common examples of copyrighted works include books, music, movies, paintings and sculptures, and even software and video games. No filing is required for copyright law to apply to a work, but registration with the Copyright Office, administered by the Library of Congress, gives special rights to copyright owners.
Trademark: Trademark law is intended to protect words and symbols that identify specific goods and services, and keep consumers from being confused about the origins of what they are buying. Essentially, it is the verbal and/or visual (and sometimes audible or olfactory) means of establishing a brand in commerce. Trademarks do not need to be registered, but registration is available at both the state and the Federal level (the latter registration with the USPTO). As with copyright, trademark registration will give the owner enhanced rights against infringers.
Next time... Trade Secrets and Patents...