Fact Sheet: Understanding Intellectual Property
Did you know that your brand has monetary value? Beyond the actual company, Coca-Cola as a brand is worth nearly $72 billion. Names, secret formulas, and inventions are all examples of intellectual property.
What Is Intellectual Property?
Intellectual property refers to an idea, an invention, or a process that “derives from the work of the mind,” such as a literary or artistic endeavor and the names, images, and designs used in commerce.
IP issues are frequently misunderstood and these terms are often misused. IP can be classified and protected in four basic ways:
- Copyright — An exclusive right held for a set amount of time to reproduce, perform, or distribute a work. Original works like books, songs, and movies put onto a tangible medium like digital audio or video receive copyright protection.
- Trademark — A trademark prevents the use of names or logos in a way that could confuse consumers. Trademarks apply to words or images used to identify goods or services. Because Apple has trademarked its logo, other companies cannot use it to sell their own electronics.
- Patent — A patent protects an invention that is novel, useful, and non-obvious. It allows the owner of the patent to produce and sell the invention exclusively for a period of time in exchange for public disclosure of its existence.
- Trade secret — This type of IP is any information held by a business that has economic value and is not easily attainable by the public. If the secret would become less valuable by releasing it to the public, it is a trade secret. Imagine, for example, if someone were to publish the formula for Coca-Cola online. Trade secrets don't hold the same level of legal protection as copyrights, trademarks, and patents but misappropriation (making it public without consent) is a punishable offense under the laws governing unfair competition providing the company took action to identify and protect the secret.
How Do I Protect My Intellectual Property?
Register your intellectual property. Depending on the type of IP in question, visit one or more of the following websites to learn more about the registration process:
- Copyrights — U.S. Copyright Office
- Trademarks — U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (Trademark Division)
- Patents — U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (Patent Division)
- Trade secrets — Trade secrets are not registered, but you must identify them as secret or confidential. In many cases, they must contain a warning label.
Do I Need an Attorney?
Filing for a copyright does not usually require assistance from an attorney. As the applicant, you can do patent and trademark applications yourself, but the Patent and Trademark office recommends using an attorney due to the more complicated nature of those processes.
What If Someone Infringes on My IP?
First, contact the offender, either through an attorney or
on your own. Explain the infringement, and ask them to stop using your IP. Alternatively, you could offer to license the property to them for a fee. If they decline, threaten to take legal action: Your last resort is to file a lawsuit, which can be expensive and time-consuming.
Where Can I Find More Information about IP?
The U.S. Patent Office has a wealth of resources available, as do the Small Business Administration and many others. Your IP is an integral part of your business. If you have a specific question, contact an attorney.
Tim Parker is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.