Knowing the intellectual property 101 is important to protecting valuable assets your business has. The term intellectual property can cover a wide range of items important to a company such as:

  • A manufacturing process.
  • A logo.
  • A trade secret.
  • Song lyrics.

The definition held by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is creations of the mind such as:

  • Literary and artistic works.
  • Inventions.
  • Symbols.
  • Names.
  • Images.
  • Designs.

The intellectual property falls under the category of intangible property and can be harder to value and protect than physical property. You can obtain rights to intellectual property for either a specified period of time or sometimes indefinitely. It is important to note that some countries will not recognize U.S. intellectual property rights, and you may have to file for rights in specific countries.

Different Types of IP

There are four primary types of intellectual property. Including patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets.


A patent is the right to use an invention for usually up to 20 years. During this time the patent owner would be able to decide who aside from them has the right to use it which is typically done through licensing agreements. The patent is basically an exchange. The inventor discloses the information and the government will protect its use for a certain number of years. After the patent expires, others can use the technology and create similar or improved upon patents.

Some examples of patents include:

  • Computer software.
  • Cosmetics.
  • Machinery.

Patents will fall into one of a few types of categories including:

  • Design patents, which are based on decorative features.
  • Utility patents, which are based on new processes or machines.
  • Plant patents, which are based on newly discovered or invented plants.

The USPTO will grant patents under certain situation and guidelines including:

  • The first inventor who claimed it would have rights.
  • The invention is considered deserving of the protection.
  • The invention is useful or novel.

A patent will not be issued if:

  • The invention was known or already used.
  • The invention was already described in a publication in the U.S. or another country.
  • The invention was already in public use for more than a year before the date the patent was requested.


A trademark is a mark used to identify the source of goods or services. A trademark can be a number of things including:

  • A word.
  • A picture.
  • A symbol.
  • A smell.
  • A sound.
  • A distinguishing mark.

Trademarks make it easier for customers to identify who has made the product. Also, by making products more easily identifiable, it provides manufacturers with greater incentives to produce quality products. Trademark rights do not have a fixed duration and can last as long as the products and services are offered. The USPTO does require renewal and verification that the mark is still in use, but can continue to renew it indefinitely.


A copyright will grant exclusive rights to someone who authors work. For the work to be protected, it must be in a tangible medium such as:

  • Books.
  • Computer programs.
  • Plays.
  • Paintings.
  • Photos.
  • Movies.
  • Music.
  • Blogs.
  • Architectural works.

There are a few exceptions to copyright law that are important to know.

  • Copyrights do not protect an idea.
  • Copyrights cannot protect names, titles, slogans, short phrases, numbers.
  • Copyrights cannot protect works that are public domain.

While copyrights can last for a long time, they are not forever. Once the copyright expires, the work enters into the public domain. Your work will be trademarked the first time it is created with or without registration.

You can register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, but you do not have to. It does come with the benefit of being able to more easily enforce your copyrights should your work be stolen. It is also important to note that you do not need to mark your work with a copyright symbol although it can provide clarity to the public on your copyrights and is recommended for online work.

Trade Secrets

A company's trade secrets are information on a formula, process, or technique that will provide them with a unique advantage over their competitors. These items are extremely valuable for a company and protecting them can be a vital importance to the success of a business.

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