Just like you protect your physical property — locking your car doors, keeping a close eye on your wallet or purse, or maybe even installing a home alarm system — any intellectual property that belongs to you needs to be protected as well.
Intellectual property (IP) is any product of your human “intellect” that the law protects from unauthorized use by others. It could be an invention, a song, a book, a brand or slogan, a formula, or an algorithm. It’s essentially any original piece of work or idea that you create, and therefore, should be protected from others who may try to copy it or profit off of it in some way, without giving you proper credit or compensation.
4 types of intellectual property rights
Depending on the type of IP you have, there are different categories of protection rights. The most common categories are trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets.
A copyright protects original works like books, articles, paintings, photographs, illustrations, musical compositions, computer programs, and movies. The creator of the work has immediate copyright as soon as they write, draw, film, compose, or design it. You can register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office and your registered copyright will typically last for your entire lifetime plus 70 years. And like any physical property you own, your copyrights are transferred to the heirs of your estate after you die. Even when you’re no longer around physically, your IP lives on (and can continue to make money) — Michael Jackson made $48 million last year and Dr. Seuss raked in $33 million.
Companies or organizations can also be copyright owners. Copyright law allows ownership through “works made for hire,” which means if you create something as an employee or contractor, the copyright will, in most cases, belong to the company that employed you.
A trademark protects a person or company’s brand name and/or logo. Companies take the protection of their trademarks very seriously, as the brand is often a company’s most valuable asset. Google’s trademark is the most valuable in the world, worth an estimated $44 billion, which is more than a quarter of the company’s overall value.
You can search for registered trademarks and file for your own with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). A trademark examiner will review your application to make sure no one else has already registered something like it, then it will be published in a public register to allow anyone to object. If it’s approved, the trademark will remain in effect for 10 years and need to be renewed every decade thereafter.
Patents protect new ideas, processes, and inventions. After a patent application is filed with the USPTO, an examiner reviews and makes sure the invention is not already patented by someone else.
If a patent is granted, it’s valid for 20 years from the application’s filing or 17 years from when the patent was issued (whichever is longer). One thing to note is that not just any random thing can be patented — patent law specifies that something must be “useful” and operate to perform its intended purpose (in other words, it needs to actually work) to be granted a patent. Also, if you invent something on behalf of your company, your employer is generally entitled to that IP — unless there’s a contract that states otherwise.
A trade secret is specific, private information that gives you an economic edge over your competitors and has value to others who cannot legitimately obtain it. It’s also subject to “reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy” according to the USPTO. A couple of well-known examples of trade secrets are the recipe to Coca-Cola and KFC’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.
The Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA) established a private civil cause of action for the misappropriation of a trade secret. This provides a reliable, uniform way to protect trade secrets. (So Colonel Sanders can rest easy!)
Protect yourself and your business
Intellectual property laws were created to obtain, protect, and enforce your IP rights. They protect you and/or your company from others who may try to steal your IP for their own financial gain. In doing so, they also protect the very foundations of innovation and creativity.
As Washington D.C. intellectual property lawyer Kevin Bell says, “IP laws encourage more people to come up with new ideas, inventions, works of art, literature, and music, which fosters to create new things and improve old things.”
If you have an idea or piece of work you want to protect, or if you’re considering starting a business that will have intellectual property, there are many things to consider.
You might consider establishing your business legally, in order to better protect your assets. A Limited Liability Company (LLC), for example, combines the best parts of corporations, sole proprietorships, and partnerships into one business entity and will offer certain liability and personal asset protection. This helps protect you against lawsuits or creditors that may try and go after your personal assets. With an established LLC, creditors can only collect against your business assets, which can be handy if something like a lawsuit involving valuable intellectual property comes into play.
It’s helpful to consult an attorney when trying to best understand your options for protecting your IP. You can even search for attorneys and law firms in your area who specialize in intellectual property law, via the LegalMatch database.
*Disclaimer: This article is for general informational purposes only and not intended to provide specific advice or legal recommendations. It is only intended to provide general education about intellectual property protections. Any ideas or strategies discussed should not be undertaken by any individual without consultation with a qualified legal professional.