The differences between patent, trademark, copyright, and trade secrets are difficult to sort through. Patents protect new, non-obvious, and useful inventions or ideas. A device, a process, a piece of machinery, and a structure are all examples of inventions. Trademarks protect key markers, usually for brands, including various designs, logos, or slogans.

Copyrights protect original bodies of text, as well as artistic or visual expressions. Finally, trade secrets protect secret and valuable information. These include ideas that need to remain secret and confidential and anyone privy to them must also maintain secrecy.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) must approve any patents that are issued for new, non-obvious, and useful inventions. By the time the application is complete, the final patent may look quite different from the original intent.

You can start by filing an application with the USPTO. The process is known to be complex, expensive and time-consuming. The average length of time is two years.

The United States Copyright Office is responsible for applications for works of authorship that are laid out in a tangible medium i.e., an audio file or book. Typically, copyrights are applied automatically.

Copyright law prevents the distribution, reproduction, modification, public display, and public performance of software that is similar to the original piece. There are some limitations on what a copyright will protect in software licenses.

For example, someone may not pay a licensing fee if they reproduce another piece of software from scratch. In this way, they haven't copied it. While this is impractical, it demonstrates a copyright's level of protection. So, if the current software is too expensive, it may be rewritten by somebody else from scratch.

Trade secret law is designed to protect information that isn't commonly known. This includes information the company is trying to maintain in confidence. These protections are more limited than copyright and patent law. They're aimed at misappropriation or the wrongful taking of information. An example of this would be the protection of source code in software.

Patent Law

The Patent Act forms the basis for United States Parent law. This is a federal statute that prohibits states from granting similar protection as outlined in the Patent Act. Patent law is divided into two categories:

Design Patents

If you're seeking a design patent, the design must be original, ornamental, and new. Design patents are not typically sought in the protection of internet-based software systems. Rather, design patents are a narrow intellectual property protection because they're limited by their ornamental appearance.

Utility Patents

Any invention that is protected by a utility patent must include a new and useful composition of matter, machine, manufacture, or process. Inventions may be chemical, electrical, or mechanical in nature. Examples of products with utility patents include the microwave oven, online payment systems, electronic postage, and the sole of a running sneaker.

If you're seeking a utility patent, the design must be new, non-obvious, and useful. To be considered non-obvious, your invention cannot have been known by or used by others in the United States before you invented it. Furthermore, it cannot have been patented in a printed publication in the United States or a foreign country.

The reason for the nonobvious requirement is because a patent is issued in exchange for your public disclosure of details pertaining to your invention. If you're not adding to the public's knowledge base, then you will not be granted a patent.

Claimed Subject Matter

What happens if someone else is creating a similar product at the same time you are? In the United States, the person who invented the claimed subject matter will receive the patent, even if that person was not the first person to file a patent application. Only the Philippines and the United States have what's known as the "first to invent" system. In other countries, the first person to file a patent application receives the patent, even if he was not the first person to invent the claimed subject matter.

If you need help with patent, trademark, and copyright secrets, 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.