Vector of a pencil overlapping a ruler. Represents having an idea that could be protected as intellectual property.

Intellectual Property Explained

Do you have intellectual property? A creative work or invention that could be legally protected and provide a competitive advantage for your business?

It’s worth taking the time to find out if you’re unsure. 

The worst thing you can do is not know if you have IP, fail to protect it, and lose it. 

Let’s explore the basics of intellectual property and how you can protect it.

*Disclaimer: This content is intended to be general information and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult an attorney before making any intellectual property or other legal decisions.

What is intellectual property?

A thought or notion floating around your head may be a great idea for a future product or service, but it isn’t yet intellectual property.

In the simplest terms, intellectual property (IP) pertains to things you create with your mind; not the ideas themselves, but the expression of the ideas. Names, designs, logos, automated processes, software, books, articles, music, etc., are all potential IPs. 

For a business, IP is an asset. It provides tangible value like equipment, inventory, or other physical possessions. And like your physical assets, IP should be monitored and protected differently.

There are four primary ways to protect your IP:  

  • Copyrights
  • Patents
  • Trademarks (including design rights)
  • Trade secrets

What is a trademark?

A trademark is the words, numbers, symbols, or unique packaging that distinguishes your brand.

Once registered, you can use the registered ® logo to notify the public that you own the symbol or name.

In the United States, you can also mark a trademark with a TM symbol, which means you claim an unregistered trademark. 

If another company uses your trademark, you can sue for trademark infringement or take legal cease-and-desist action against them. If the trademark is not registered, the lawsuit will be more difficult.

What is a patent?

Patents protect new inventions and cover how things work, what they do, how they do it, what they are made of, and how they are made. 

Patent protection is an act of the federal government and has to do with interstate commerce. Once a patent is approved, it provides you with exclusive rights to produce a product or use a process for up to 20 years.

If someone profits from claims to an invention you have duly registered with the U.S. patent office—your patent protection allows you to sue. 

What is copyright?

Copyright protects original works of authorship like books, songs, movies, art, photographs, etc. 

Copyright protects the actual expression of ideas, not the idea itself. The copyright terms can vary but generally last at least 50 years after the author’s death.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, a visual copyright notice should contain three elements:

  • The symbol  ©, the word “Copyright,” or the abbreviation “Copr.”
  • The year of first publication
  • The name of the copyright owner

What are trade secrets?

Trade secrets Protect confidential and proprietary information like customer lists, manufacturing processes, secret ingredients, etc. Trade secret protection lasts as long as steps are taken to maintain secrecy.

How to protect trade secrets

Physical security is essential if you have material qualifying as a trade secret or a prototype you are considering patenting.

Keep any sensitive documents like recipes or customer lists locked away in a safe or other secure storage option, not lying around on a desk for any enterprising thief to find. For any prototypes you may have, ensure that anything you don’t want stolen isn’t left in plain sight.

Intellectual property can provide you with a competitive advantage when starting a business. So, don’t miss out on protecting your work, brand, or innovations by not knowing how to identify and register IP. 

Contact an attorney for professional guidance if you’re unsure about any part of the registration process. 

Want to learn more about how to legally protect your business? Check out these resources:

Intellectual property FAQ

An example of Intellectual Property (IP) is the algorithm that powers Google’s search engine. This algorithm is a proprietary technology developed by Google and is protected as a trade secret. The details of the algorithm are kept confidential and not disclosed to the public—giving Google a competitive advantage in the search engine market.

Typically, the person or entity that created the intellectual property owns it. However, if an employee creates IP during their employment, the employer may own the IP, depending on the employment contract terms.

A trademark is a sign, symbol, or logo that identifies and distinguishes a company’s goods or services from others. For example, the Apple logo is a trademark of Apple Inc.

The ™ symbol indicates that a word, phrase, logo, or design is claimed as a trademark by a company or individual. It is often used before a trademark is officially registered.

A trademark protects names, symbols, or logos used to identify a company’s goods or services, while copyright protects original works of authorship, such as books, music, films, and software.

The right to use copyright refers to the exclusive rights the copyright owner grants to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, or license their work.

You cannot copyright facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation. You can copyright the way these things are expressed or implemented.

A patent is a legal protection granted for an invention or process that provides a new way of doing something or offers a new technical solution to a problem. An example of a patent could be a new engine type or a novel manufacturing process.

A patent typically lasts 20 years from the filing date, provided maintenance fees are paid at regular intervals.