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Trademark vs copyright: what’s the difference?

Protecting your business assets is vital, and trademark and copyright play essential roles in securing the intellectual property your business creates. From logos and signage to marketing slogans and packaging designs, keeping your intellectual property secure means it’s important to understand the difference between trademark and copyright protection.


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Why intellectual property is important

Intellectual property (IP) is anything your business creates using your intellect. While it doesn’t have a physical form, IP covers everything from inventions and prototypes that could be turned into marketable goods and services, through to your brand such as logos and marketing materials. Intellectual property is the same regardless of the difference between trademark and copyright approaches to how IP itself is protected.

It’s important to protect your intellectual property as it has value and can be sold, licensed and even used as security for investments. Not protecting your IP can see your business lose out financially. For example, a competitor may steal or copy your IP, such as creating a similar logo that confused customers to the extent that your business loses sales.

What’s the difference between a trademark and copyright?

Trademarks and copyright both exist to protect your intellectual property. They are used to protect different types of assets and they work in different ways. They also offer different levels of protection.

What is copyright? Copyright determines the rights people have over the original work they create. It covers all unique creative work such as graphic designs, video, software, content, photography and film and audio recordings. Importantly copyright covers the expression of an idea, rather than the idea itself. Copyright can be sold or assigned to others, and usually work created by employees is owned by the business.

What is a trademark? A trademark is more specific than copyright. It is designed to protect anything that identifies the goods, services and brand of a business. Trademarks protect elements such as a brand name, slogan and logo.

Both copyright and trademark rights are territorial. Just because you have protection in UK doesn’t mean you have protection internationally. Copyright protection is automatic in all countries signed up to the Berne Convention, but different countries have different levels of protection and enforcement.

There are four key differences between trademark and copyright.

1. Copyright vs trademarks: How work is protected

Copyright is an automatic right that is assigned to you or your business as soon as an original piece of work is created. You don’t need to register for copyright protection and all the rights offered by copyright protection apply straightaway. It’s a good idea to add a copyright symbol (©) to any creative work you produce as it makes it easier to take legal action should someone use that work without permission.

In contrast, trademarks must be registered to have protection. In the UK, you must apply to the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) to register a trademark, and the process should take around four months if there are no objections. Your trademark must be unique and during the registration process you can use the symbol TM after the item you wish to trademark and the symbol ® when the trademark has been registered. Once you a registered trademark has been granted, you can legally prevent others from using or copying your trademark.

2. Copyright vs trademarks: what they protect

Copyright is designed to protect your intellectual property from being used without your permission. You are free to allow others to use your work, to determine how that work is used, and have the right to be identified as the creator of the work. You can also sell or assign copyright to others. However, other people cannot copy, distribute or use your work without your permission.

Trademarks are designed to protect the unique elements that identify your brand or goods. From unique slogans such as ‘Heinz Meanz Beanz’ to logos such as the Olympic Rings, any combination of logo, name, colours, words and symbols that are used to identify your business can be trademarked. Trademarks are designed to ensure other businesses cannot use your brand.

3. Copyright vs trademarks: how long they last

While copyright is automatically assigned, it also has a defined shelf life before it expires. The good news is that copyright protection lasts a long time – it doesn’t expire until 70 years after the death of the creator. After this, the work falls into the public domain and becomes free for anyone to use. People and businesses can use, modify and sell work that is in the public domain without having to seek permission.

Trademarks can last indefinitely as long as they are actively used and renewed. In the UK, a trademark must be renewed every ten years to ensure it is protected. There is no limit to how often it can be renewed.

4. Copyright vs trademarks: active use

Copyright protection doesn’t require that you actively use the copyrighted work. Your copyright remains intact for the entire duration of the copyright period. You also don’t need to do anything to ensure copyright protection. You can choose to enforce your copyright at any time during the copyright period.

Trademarks, however, need to be actively used or you risk losing them. If you don’t actively use your trademark within any five-year period, such as on brand packaging or in marketing materials, it can be challenged as inactive and removed from the trademark register.


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Reference to any organisation, business and event on this page does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation from the British Business Bank or the UK Government. Whilst we make reasonable efforts to keep the information on this page up to date, we do not guarantee or warrant (implied or otherwise) that it is current, accurate or complete. The information is intended for general information purposes only and does not take into account your personal situation, nor does it constitute legal, financial, tax or other professional advice. You should always consider whether the information is applicable to your particular circumstances and, where appropriate, seek professional or specialist advice or support.

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