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Protecting Your Intellectual Property: A Complete Guide

Create documents that can protect ideas, intellectual property, and other sensitive information.

Essential documents for protecting information

Innovators and inventors use these documents every day to protect their ideas and interests.

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Step 1

Non-Disclosure Agreement

A Non-Disclosure Agreement protects your confidential business information or inventions revealed during discussions, proposals or negotiations with a...

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Step 2

Confidentiality Agreement

A Confidentiality Agreement protects your confidential business information or inventions revealed during discussions, proposals or negotiations with...

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Step 3

Cease & Desist Letter

A cease and Desist Letter is a letter used to demand another person to cease violating your copyright, to make creditors stop harassing you or to dema...

The concept of intellectual property and its various protections can be confusing.

However, in today's competitive market, it's important to understand the basics of intellectual property and its various laws so you can protect yourself and your ideas.

In the following guide, we'll break down everything related to intellectual property, including copyright, trademarks, patents, trade secrets, and more.


Last updated: October 18, 2021

Table of contents


What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind. Original ideas are rare and such intangible assets are valuable and require protection.

In today's world, we're constantly surrounded by intellectual property without even realizing it. We utilize and enjoy literary and artistic works, brand symbols and names, software, designs, and inventionsall of which are intellectual property.

Intellectual property is distinct from physical property. The ideas and designs that help create a physical item, not the item itself, are intellectual property.

For example, a car is physical property while an automotive manufacturer's brand, including its name, logo, and slogan, and any innovative designs and technological components are intellectual property.

Like physical property, intellectual property can be valuable and profitable. Therefore, it's important to understand intellectual property so you can guard it against misuse and theft.

Understanding intellectual property law

Intellectual property law refers to the international and national policies that are put in place to protect creators of intellectual property. These laws and policies protect creators by preventing unauthorized parties from misusing creations and inventions.

In the United States, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the constitution gives congress the authority to grant authors and inventors exclusive rights to their creations.

Internationally, there have been various agreements to establish some global policies for intellectual property protection.

For example, the 1994 TRIPS Agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) is an international agreement between all nations of the World Trade Organization. Participating countries came to this agreement to ensure that they would include policies for the misuse of intellectual property as part of their national laws.

There are also various organizations that work to protect creators of intellectual property. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is an agency under the United Nations that seeks to develop an international system for governing intellectual property and safeguarding public interests.

Why is intellectual property law important?

Having specific laws that govern intellectual property is essential for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, intellectual property laws protect creators and encourage creativity and innovation.

Intellectual property law grants people and organizations ownership rights to their ideas and inventions. With these rights, creators and inventors can compose, design, code, and create without the fear of having another party steal and profit from their ideas.

Having ownership of their intellectual property financially benefits creators as it allows them to capitalize on their work and protects their ideas from being stolen by a competitor.

Also, when another person or organization misuses intellectual property that doesn't belong to them, intellectual property laws give creators the grounds to pursue legal action.

When society ensures that creators and inventors can profit from their work, creators produce new ideas and everyone benefits.

However, intellectual property ownership rights are usually not permanent and only last for certain amounts of time, depending on the specific law and type of intellectual property.


Types of intellectual property rights

There are four main types of intellectual property rights. By understanding the differences between them, you can better understand how to protect your intellectual property.

Copyrights

Copyright is a type of intellectual property right that protects original works of authorship. Many different types of works can be protected by copyright, including:

  • Literary texts and books
  • Dramatic works
  • Music
  • Sound works
  • Films
  • Photographs
  • Art
  • Paintings
  • Sculptures
  • Architecture
  • Technical drawings
  • Reference works
  • Data collections
  • Computer programs
  • Databases
  • Advertisements
  • Maps
  • Scientific creations

Copyright doesn't cover ideas themselves, procedures, methods of operation, or mathematical concepts.

Copyright is automatically granted to creators. If you write stories for fun and never even publish them, you still own the copyrights each time you write a new piece.

When you have the copyright to a piece of work, you have the right to:

  • Produce copies of your work
  • Distribute copies of your work
  • Perform your work publicly
  • Display your work publicly
  • Make modifications to your work

Although works are copyrighted as soon as you create them, you can further secure your copyright by placing a copyright notice on all copies of the work and registering your copyright with the United States Copyright Office.

Keep in mind that copyright doesn't last forever. For works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years.

Trademarks

A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, or distinguishing quality that is used to identify a company, individual, or organization. When registered with the government, a trademark can be used exclusively by your corporation within a given market or jurisdiction.

A business can also have an unregistered trademark, which may give it some regional rights, but may not protect its interests nationally or internationally.

Many different things can be trademarked, including a:

  • Name or word
  • Slogan
  • Letter
  • Symbol
  • Design
  • Color

If you have to enforce your trademark in court, having it registered beforehand makes it easier to prove your right to the trademark. If you choose to register a trademark, you do so with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Patents

A patent is a type of intellectual property protection that gives an inventor exclusive rights to their invention. Unlike copyrights and trademarks, which automatically protect intellectual property, inventors must obtain a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A patent can protect various types of inventions, such as:

  • Designs
  • Processes
  • Improvements
  • Physical item, such as a tool or machine

In the United States, a patent only lasts 20 years from the date you file the patent application. After inventors have time to benefit from their work, disclosure of inventions adds to public knowledge, competition, and more innovation.

Additionally, American patents are only effective within the United States. Generally, this means that if you invent something and want to develop and profit from it internationally, you need to pursue patents in other countries as well.

Trade secrets

A trade secret is business information that is unknown to the public. Generally, if a trade secret is released to the public, it's detrimental to the success of the business.

A trade secret can be a business practice or process, such as a unique recipe or algorithm, or a collection of useful information that gives a company leverage against its competition, such as a client list.

Unlike patents, which are usually public records after a certain amount of time, trade secrets are not externally known.

In the United States, a company can consider something a trade secret if the following requirements are met:

  • The trade secret must contain unique, unknown information.
  • The company must take reasonable steps to conceal the information from the public.
  • The trade secret must have economic value.
  • The trade secret can only be known to a limited number of people.

Do I have to register a trade secret?

No, you don't have to register trade secrets as there is no process or registration office for trade secrets. Requiring companies to register and disclose their trade secrets to a registration office would contradict the definition of a confidential trade secret.

However, if a legal dispute arises over trade secret misappropriation, a trade secret holder may have to discuss the trade secret in court to prove its existence and validity. In this case, a court would determine if the information meets the requirements of a trade secret, as outlined in the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA).


How do I protect my intellectual property?

The steps you take to secure your intellectual property will vary depending on the type of information or property you're aiming to protect. However, you can begin by educating yourself about the various types of intellectual property protections and which ones apply to you.

Step 1: Know which type of protection you require.

Knowing which type of protection you require will dictate the steps you can take to protect your intellectual property. If you have intellectual property that is protected by copyright or trademark, or as a trade secret, you may not need to pursue any additional protections.

Despite registering a copyright, an original creation is automatically protected by copyright the moment you create it. Registering a copyright provides extra protection, but is not necessary in all cases. Similarly, there is no requirement that you register trademarked property.

Additionally, if you are trying to protect a trade secret, you simply have to keep the information confidential as there is no extra registration for this type of information. If a legal dispute arises around a trade secret, a court will determine whether the information meets the qualifications of a trade secret.

Step 2: Use an NDA or Confidentiality Agreement.

If you are trying to protect intellectual property, product information, business operations, marketing information, proprietary computer technology, or customer information, use a Non-Disclosure Agreement or Confidentiality Agreement when discussing your work or idea with possible collaborators, potential buyers, or anyone else.

Within either of these agreements, you can define the confidential information you're trying to protect and the recipient's permitted use of the information. Such contracts also outline legal remedies if the receiving party misuses or releases the confidential information.

Step 3: Register your intellectual property.

Depending on your situation, you may register your intellectual property with the appropriate office. Registering your intellectual property, such as a copyright, trademark, or patent, validates your ownership and can help with enforcement if unauthorized parties misuse your property.

  • Copyrights: Although works are copyrighted as soon as they're created, you can secure your copyright by placing a copyright notice on all copies of the work and registering your copyright with the United States Copyright Office.
  • Trademarks: If you have to enforce your trademark in court, having it registered beforehand can more easily prove your right to the trademark. Register it with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
  • Patents: Unlike copyrights, which are automatically created once a work is created, patents are granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Apply for patents to protect your inventions and ideas.

Intellectual property infringement and theft

Even though you can protect yourself and your intellectual property, your rights may eventually be infringed upon. Any person or organization who misuses intellectual property without the owner's permission commits intellectual property infringement.

If a person or organization misuses your intellectual property, you may first use a Cease and Desist Letter.

A Cease and Desist Letter is a document that you can use to request a person or organization to stop a specific action and to not do it again in the future. The letter usually states that if the party fails to comply, they may face legal action. Using a Cease and Desist Letter is a good first step if you want to avoid taking the matter to court.

However, if the person or organization continues to misuse your property, you can take them to court. If you bring a lawsuit to court, a judge can order an injunction that orders the unauthorized party to stop infringing on your rights.

Failure to comply with an injunction is a contempt of court which can result in fines or even jail. The court can also order the infringing party to pay you for monetary damages.


Be proactive with your intellectual property

The purpose of Intellectual property rights is to protect the financial interests of creators and companies. Luckily, as seen with copyright and trademark, some protection is automatically awarded to creators. However, it's always best to register your intellectual property with the appropriate organization for optimal protection.

Additionally, if you're going to discuss your work with an external party, always utilize a Non-Disclosure Agreement or Confidentiality Agreement.

Whether you've branded your company, made a groundbreaking invention, or created a useful computer program, being proactive in the protection of your creations will help you fully capitalize on your intellectual property.

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