Intellectual Property: Copyrights, Patents, Trademarks and Trade-secrets, Oh my!

At some point, most businesses will need to develop a strategy to protect their intellectual property. . A company’s IP strategy ultimately depends on what they want to protect and what they are doing/planning to do with it. Let’s take a look at each of the 4 types of IP:


Copyright in the US protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium.” Some common items covered by copyright include: recorded music and film, books, paintings, and photographs. However, copyright does not cover facts or ideas. So the symphony and/or code you’re writing are protected, but the names and numbers in a phonebook are not. Similarly, if you write a paper about a play, your specific words are covered, but the ideas and opinions you express about the play are not.

Copyright arises automatically in the US once a work is created. For maximum protection, however, especially in the case of lawsuits, works need to be registered with the US copyright office. Visit the US Copyright Office for more details on copyrights.


A patent is a government granted monopoly on an invention. Unlike copyrights, an inventor has to register a patent before he can assert any rights over it. In exchange for the monopoly, the inventor has to disclose how the invention works. This process is a good thing for the inventor and for society because: 1) the inventor can use the patent and its monopoly to build a business around his invention and 2) public disclosure of the patent increases society’s knowledge.

A patent must be novel, be non-obvious, describe the invention in such a way that another can recreate it, and be claimed by the inventor. Determining if an invention meets these requirements is a difficult process and is best undertaken by retaining a patent attorney to research and file a patent application. Find out more about Patents here.


At its simplest, a trademark is a logo, mark, symbol or name that specifically identifies a company or a company’s product. A trademark is nonfunctional, which means that if the trademark is removed from the product, the product will still work. A trademark’s function is to communicate to a customer who made something. By branding products with their specific mark, a company can develop a reputation for quality and establish trust with their customers.

Like copyrights, trademarks arise automatically. These automatic, common law marks generally receive protection under state and federal law, but, as with copyright, the strongest protection comes when the mark is registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office. Read more here.

Trade Secrets

The last and most interesting form of IP is the trade secret, and it is exactly what it sounds like. To have a trade secret, a company must have information that is valuable because it is secret, and the company must take steps to keep that information secret. Unlike a patent, trade secrets do not expire. A company can maintain a trade secret forever.

The downside to a trade secret is a company must be very proactive about protecting it. Typically, this is done through non-disclosure and non-compete clauses in the company’s employment contracts. Cornell Law has an excellent overview of trade secrets here. There is no government agency that oversees trade secret because they are, well, secret.


How a company actually goes about protecting each of these types of intellectual property depends on what the company is doing. With a little research or by retaining quality legal counsel, every business can affordably protect their unique IP.