Understanding the Different Forms of Intellectual Property
Intellectual property (IP) is a creation of the mind. They are intangible assets for which exclusive rights are granted by law. These assets include artistic works, discoveries, inventions, designs, phrases, symbols, etc. Intellectual property is granted similar protective rights as those granted to physical property, and the stealing of that property is regulated in the U.S. at the federal level.
Protection of intellectual property affords the owner of the property exclusive rights to create, use and distribute the work. Owners are granted a temporary monopoly on the idea, and with the exception of trade secrets, owners disclose their process and/or original works to the government and the public.
In theory, by granting the owners protection from theft, IP regulation promotes creative and inventive progress. It allows owners to display their work to the public without the worry of losing profit through imitation.
Depending on the work, intellectual property falls into one of four categories: copyrights, trademarks, patents and trade secrets. The following article is a brief overview of the various forms of intellectual property; for greater depth and information on how to apply for IP protection, select the links at the end of their respective sections.
Copyrights protect the expression of an idea. The expression can be in various forms, including but not limited to literary, musical and dramatic works, motion pictures and sound recordings, pictorial, graphic and sculptural art, even computer programs.
Copyrights give the owner exclusive rights to copy, modify, distribute, perform and display his/her work. In general, copyrights last for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years. But there are exceptions that can alter the term of a copyright. For more info on copyright duration, visit the U.S. Copyright Office website.
For an in-depth guide on acquiring a copyright, click here.
A trademark is a word or symbol that represents and identifies a product or a brand. To qualify for trademark protection, the asset must be distinctive; it must distinguish your goods or services from those of others.
Trademarks grant exclusive rights of use to the owners. The trademark is protected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the owner to identify and prosecute infringements. As long as the owner files the required maintenance fees and documents, protection of a trademark lasts indefinitely. The USPTO has a useful guide on maintaining and renewing trademarks.
For a step-by-step guide on how to register a trademark, click here.
Patents protect inventions, original designs and novel processes. These inventions, however, must be new, non-obvious and useful to ensure the granting of a patent.
Patents give exclusive rights to the holder to exclude competitors from making, using or selling the property throughout the U.S.; it also protects against importation of imitation properties. With the exception of design patents (which last for 14 years), patents offer 20 years of protection. In exchange for this protection, the holder must give full public disclosure of the work.
Click here for a complete guide on applying for a patent.
4. Trade Secrets
A trade secret is any information that, by remaining covert, offers a business a competitive edge or some economic value. By definition, reasonable actions must be taken to maintain its secrecy in order for the information to be considered a trade secret.
Unlike other forms of intellectual property, which are afforded protection by the government, trade secrets must be protected by the holder. The U.S. does not grant trade secrets; instead, it only regulates infringement when misappropriation claims are made. Trade secrets last indefinitely and are valid until disclosed to the public.
For a guide to understanding and protecting trade secrets, click here.
Intellectual property is a complex legal subject. If you plan on applying for IP protection, be sure to perform due diligence. A good IP lawyer is also useful and can help determine what is best for you. He/she can also help with the lengthy and frustrating bureaucratic process involved in filing.
But keep in mind that, although IP protection is expensive and time-consuming, it’s the only option that ensures your unique creation, idea or symbol remains yours.
Nick is the managing editor of the Small Business Center. He and his team create content that helps entrepreneurs start, grow and manage their business.