Updated November 24, 2020:

Looking to sell an intellectual property? Intellectual property, or “IP” for short, is an idea that has turned into something tangible, such as a product, design, book, prescription medication, or company logo. Deciding whether to sell or license your IP is up to you, but it's important to research your options.

Why Is Intellectual Property Important?

Writing a novel or coming up with a new graphic design takes a lot of time and effort. IP protections prevent others from stealing or taking credit for your work without your express permission.

There are a few ways inventors can legally protect their intellectual property:

  • Patents: government licenses which give the owner exclusive rights to the invention, design, or process
    • Patent rights last anywhere from 14 to 20 years in the U.S. depending on the category of the patent
    • In the U.S., the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) handles patent documentation and applications
  • Trademarks: symbols, phrases, words, logos, or a combination of these items which denote a company's product from competitors 
    • Iconic trademarks include the names Walmart, Google, and Microsoft as well as images such as the Nike swoosh logo
    • Trademarks are protected for as long as they are used
  • Copyrights: protections for original works of authorship, including music, software, drawings, literature, and films
    • Copyrights are automatically bestowed when an author creates a work, but the owner can register the work for additional protections
    • Copyright protections last for 50 to 100 years after the author's death
    • Most people have some sort of copyright-protected work, such as home videos, photographs, school essays, and other written works
  • Trade secrets: a company's internal practices or processes which lend it a competitive advantage
    • Trade secrets are not publicly known.
    • Companies must make an effort to protect their trade secrets, and those secrets must have economic value to the company.
    • For example, KFC's Original Recipe is a trade secret.
    • Trade secret protections last for as long as the company keeps the information secret.

More than one type of intellectual property can apply to the same creation. The owner of any of these intellectual properties may sue another individual or company who violates those rights. There are a couple of things to note about intellectual property laws, however:

  • IP laws expire after a certain timeframe.
  • Not all inventions fall under IP protections.

Protecting Your Intellectual Property

If you want to register a trademark or patent in the United States, you must apply with the USPTO. Patents must be novel and non-obvious ideas. Copyright owners can apply for official copyright through the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress. As for trade secrets, it's up to the company to protect them.

Certain types of inventions cannot be patented, such as:

  • Scientific principles
  • Mathematical formulas
  • Natural substances

You also cannot copyright a work that isn't already created or copyright one with no known authorship. The USPTO will not allow general terms to be trademarked, which is something Google recently found out when it attempted to trademark the word “glass.” Instead, the company could trademark the phrase “Google Glass” and enjoy trademark protection.

Selling Your Intellectual Property

When you wish to sell your intellectual property, you retain certain rights to the work or invention. For example, a published author retains IP rights to their work, but they sign contracts for the purposes of publication and marketing to get that work on bookstore shelves.

If you've developed a new product that will enhance people's lives, it's important to obtain IP protections so you'll get credit for the invention and can make money from it.

There are pros and cons of selling and licensing your intellectual property, which is why you should conduct plenty of research before deciding on how to proceed. For example, if you create a painting, your options are limited to keeping it, destroying it, or selling the artwork. With a book, you'll most likely license the intellectual property to ensure it isn't copied by anyone other than the publisher who has received permission to mass-produce it.

Trade secrets cannot be licensed because they must be kept secret, so the only option is to sell the secret process or recipe to someone wanting to take advantage of it. This will, however, result in a loss to the individual or company selling the trade secret.

If you're looking to sell intellectual property, post your job 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.