Intellectual property is a creation of the mind. Unlike physical property, like a house or car, intellectual property may or may not have a material form. Intellectual property rights protect your right to use your original creation, but don't protect the idea itself. Often, claiming your rights requires giving your intellectual property physical form, which is what is legally protected. Lastly, some intellectual property rights last for a specific amount of time, while others can, in theory, last forever.

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Types of Intellectual Property

There are four basic types of intellectual property:

  • Trademarks-These are distinctive words, images or sounds that identify a brand. Trademarks can identify specific goods or services or may identify the company supplying them. Trademarks can be registered or unregistered and may last as long as they are in active use. Filling out a trademark application worksheet is a great place to start.

  • Patents-A patent gives you, the inventor, the exclusive right to make, use or sell an invention. You can stop others from doing anything with your invention until the patent expires, even if you never make or sell it. There are actually three different types of patent: utility, design and plant, each protecting different types of inventions. A smart first step is filing a provisional patent application.

  • Copyrights-This form of protection covers original, non-utilitarian (not useful for work) creations. Copyrights cover writings, music, art and software, among other things. Some copyright rights are automatic as soon as you put the work into a tangible form (written, recorded, etc.), though it's advisable to include a copyright notice when publishing these works.

  • Trade secrets-These are pieces of information, such as a recipe, process or technique, that give a business an advantage over competitors. The information is valuable specifically because it is not widely known, and disclosing it would decrease or even destroy its value. Well-known examples include the KFC Colonel's secret recipe and the Coca-Cola formula.

Your rights vary by the type of intellectual property and whether you register it. For example, you do not have to register trademarks or copyrights in order to have some protection, but registration gives you more rights. Patent protection requires registration in all cases. Trade secrets have no official registration option.

What to Do to Protect Your Intellectual Property

Each type of intellectual property is governed by a different set of laws. Whether you're trying to protect your invention from illegal use by others or wondering if your use of an idea might infringe on others' rights, here are some tips:

At the creation or invention stage, you can:

  • Research your invention-Before filing for protection, you will need to make sure your intellectual property does not already exist. These searches can get complicated, so to make sure you don't miss anything, you should consider consulting an IP attorney.

  • File for protection-You'll want to get the paperwork right to increase your chances of getting your application accepted. For a patent, the language you use in describing your invention is important to ensuring you get the best protection possible. Again, running this application past an experienced lawyer is well worth the cost.

  • Licensing agreements-If you decide to license your invention, a lawyer can make sure your agreement is in your best interests and doesn't give away rights you had not intended to give up.

If you believe someone is using your protected work illegally, you can:

  • Send a cease and desist letter.

  • Send a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice to ISPs (Internet service providers) and/or website owners.

  • File a lawsuit.

If you are accused of violating someone else's intellectual property rights, damages for violations can be steep. You can ask for permission to use another person or company's intellectual property by sending a request, such as a copyright request.

Intellectual Property Rights Abroad

Other countries do not necessarily recognize your intellectual property rights as protected by U.S. law, and you must file for protection in every country where you want it. Some countries have agreed to simplify the process by recognizing a single application for particular rights. You can file one application to gain patent protection in up to 146 countries under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) and trademark protection in any of the 88 countries participating in the Madrid Protocol. Copyrights cannot be secured in other countries with any single application. However, many countries do recognize foreign copyrights under a variety of treaties or conventions.

To protect your intellectual property, make sure you understand what rights your work qualifies for and the protection offered under applicable laws.

Get Started Protect your intellectual property Create IP documents and ask a lawyer your questions.

Get Started Protect your intellectual property Create IP documents and ask a lawyer your questions.