Trademark vs. copyright for freelancers: Know how and when to use them

Trademark vs copyright: When should you use one ahead of the other as a business owner? In the following article, we'll give you everything you need to know.
Trademark vs. copyright for freelancers: Know how and when to use them

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Becoming a freelancer comes with a large number of benefits that aren’t able to be had through other career options. However, it also comes with a large number of nuances that you’ll need to keep in mind in order to protect yourself.

One of the most noteworthy is preventing your creative work from being stolen by someone else. But, not everyone is aware of the difference between trademarking and copyrighting.

Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about trademark vs copyright and which is best for your situation.


A trademark refers to a name or a symbol that’s associated with a particular good or service. Collectively, these are known as ‘marks.’ In general, this also applies to things like words or phrases that are inherent to a brand.

For example, the word ‘Nike’ is trademarked since it’s the name of a brand. Similarly, their ‘Just do it’ slogan is also trademarked since it’s closely associated with the brand itself.

As you may expect, the iconic ‘swoosh’ design that the company uses for its logo is also trademarked. 

In order to benefit from trademark protection, the name, phrase, or symbol must be used in commerce in a way that’s unique to the product. So, a slogan isn’t able to be trademarked unless a brand uses it to help promote a product or service.

Depending on your needs, you’re able to apply for trademark protection at both a federal and state level. As you may expect, state trademark protection only applies to the state in which you file.

Federal trademark protection applies to the entire country but may have terms that differ from the state you’re in.


Interestingly, creative work is technically copyrighted from the moment it’s first made or published. But, this doesn’t offer the same level of protection as formal copyrighting does.

This is often motivation enough to register creative works with the US Copyright Office.

When copyrighted, the author of the creative work is given the exclusive right to reproduce, modify, and publish the work. In some scenarios, copyright ownership is transferred to another party as part of negotiation (such as when purchasing a business from its owner).

Freelancers often highly benefit from copyright protection, as it applies to graphic design, written content, music, choreography, etc. It should be noted, though, that dealing with international copyright issues can be difficult since the concept of a 'universal copyright' doesn't exist.

Why are they used? 

There's more to trademarking or copyrighting your work than simply proving that you're the original creator. Your creative work is your intellectual property and these processes exist to protect the content that you create.

Without such protection, there would be nothing stopping other people from stealing your profiting off of it for themselves. There would also be no way to hold them accountable.

Although a brand name or creative work is often intangible, you still have the right to ownership over it as long as it's an original creation that doesn't infringe on the rights of others.

What happens if I find out someone plagiarized my work?

One of a freelancer's worst fears is having another party plagiarize their creative work. This can become especially frustrating if the individual(s) are also profiting from it.

Interestingly, though, there are many circumstances in which the other party wasn't aware they were infringing on your copyright. It's important to recognize this possibility and give them the opportunity to take the copyrighted work down, as this is often the most convenient way to resolve the issue.

In some cases, the other party may offer to credit you or compensate you appropriately once you contact them. As long as you feel the terms of your agreement with them are fair, there's nothing wrong with choosing this route.

Sometimes, though, you may find that the other party either doesn't respond or refuses to comply with your request. In this case, you can issue a cease and desist letter that threatens legal action if they continue to use your work.

It's important to note, though, that you only have a certain amount of time to file a lawsuit from the date of infringement.

How can I protect myself?

Although creative work immediately benefits from copyright upon creation, it's worth displaying a written notice alongside your work that reminds people that you take your content seriously. People are far less likely to plagiarize if they're worried that you'll take legal action against them.

You should also ensure that you have supporting evidence that you're the original creator of the work. For art, this could include rough sketches, drafts, etc. Similarly, musicians can use recordings or music project files.

As long as you have some sort of evidence of the work in its early-intermediate stages, you shouldn't have an issue proving ownership.

Finally, you can watermark your work by placing a personal touch somewhere within the finished product. This could include a hidden message/symbol in artwork, data in code that the developer added themselves, etc.

Understanding trademark vs copyright can seem difficult

But it doesn't have to be.

With the above information about the details regarding trademark vs copyright in mind, you'll be well on your way toward ensuring that you protect your work as effectively as possible.

Want to learn more about how we can help your freelance business succeed? Discover Hectic, the freelance management software that helps freelancers take control of their business.

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Our team of career freelancers writes about best invoice practices, what makes a great client, and repeats the mantra, "never work without a contract." We're opinionated about the future of work and will always be on the side of freelancers.
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