This introduction to intellectual property covers the ideas and expressions of creativity by a person or business. Common examples of intellectual property include trade names, product designs, software, literary work, architectural work, music recordings, videos, pictures, and paintings. Although some intellectual property is intangible, it is treated as a tangible asset under U.S. law. 

Why You Need to Protect Your Intellectual Property

Without an effective means of protecting your intellectual property, your ideas or creations could be duplicated and financial gain made at your expense. It is therefore important to proactively protect your intellectual property. In some cases, this might require a business to register its intellectual property as soon as possible.

In the U.S., there are four ways intellectual property can be protected by the law: using patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets.

How to Protect Intellectual Property Using Patents

Patents can protect particular designs of goods or services. The process of getting a patent is complicated and typically takes three to five years in the U.S. You will usually need the services of a patent attorney to file a patent, and you will incur substantial fees.

When an entity registers a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it is valid for 20 years from the date of the registration. U.S. laws set conditions that products protected by patents have to meet:

  • Novelty: The product must be novel. It must be new in the U.S., and no patent should have been registered on it for one year prior to the registration of the patent. Patents can be registered by an entity that wants to use, sell, or import a product.
  • Non-Obvious: There should be evidence that other people could not produce the patented item without a lot of effort.
  • Usefulness: For the item to be protected by a patent, it must be able to be put to a useful purpose, or it should be able to solve a problem.

How to Protect Intellectual Property Using Trademarks

A trademark can be used to protect a name or a symbol of an entity. All trademarks in the U.S. are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO).

A trademark can be issued in any of the following instances:

  • A trademark can be issued when you intend to use a name or a symbol.
  • It can be issued when you are already using a name or symbol.
  • In some cases, a foreign trademark can be deemed effective in the U.S.

The Use of ™ and ® Symbols

The ™ symbol can be used immediately after the name you intend to trademark, while the ® symbol should only be used after a name or symbol you have already registered with the PTO. In the U.S., it is illegal to use the ® after a name before registering it with the PTO.

A trademark is registered for 10 years but can be renewed on expiry. Therefore, a business can protect its names and symbols indefinitely as long as it is using them.

How to Protect Intellectual Property Using Copyrights

A copyright is used to protect documents from unauthorized duplication. Items that can be protected by copyright include sound recordings, pictures, paintings, architectural work, videos, and more. Copyrights can protect the expression of a person's idea. Copyright gives an entity the rights to copy, modify, and distribute the item.

It is important to note that a copyright cannot protect an idea that has not yet been expressed. It is the expression of the idea that can be protected by the copyright. The only way to protect an idea is through the use of confidential agreements or trade secrets.

How to Protect Intellectual Property Using Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are used to protect a pattern, formula, or process of doing things. Unlike the other methods of protecting intellectual property, trade secrets are not registered with the government. The use of trade secrets is preferred in cases where registration of the property might expose it to copycats. It is the responsibility of the trade secret owner to protect it from getting into the public domain.

If you need help to protect your intellectual property, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.