The Basics of Intellectual Property

The most valuable asset that any business owns is its intellectual property. However, many business owners, especially novice entrepreneurs, aren't clear about what intellectual property is and how to protect it. The clarity they need can be gained by working with a patent and trademark attorney. 


What Is Intellectual Property? 

Intellectual property, or IP, can cover numerous assets. Perhaps it's a new product or service. Intellectual property also may be a business' name or logo. The code that goes into software or point-of-sale materials may similarly be intellectual property. Accordingly, IP can be things that are created by the human mind, the design of a new product or a symbol that shows which company makes a product. 



How Do You Protect IP? 

Several protection methods are available. The method that you use depends upon what you're protecting and what form of protection you need. Inventions typically are protected with a patent while a logo, brand name or slogan is protected with a trademark. Copyrights are used to protect literature, artwork and other creations that take tangible forms. Trade secrets defend recipes, formulas, proprietary methods or unique devices. 
 


Patents 

When someone invents a new product, they may pursue patent protection. A patent doesn't give you the right to make or sell that product. Rather, it gives the patent holder the right to prevent others from making, selling or using a product that is covered by the patent. Some of the standards by which a patent application is reviewed include whether or not the claimed item is new, not obvious to a person with skill in the industry and useful.
 
The typical term for a U.S. patent is 20 years from the date of filing the application. Patent protection additionally may be available in foreign countries if the patent holder will be making or selling their products overseas. 
 


Trademarks 

A registered trademark identifies the source of a product. It's possible to register a trademark for a single word, a phrase or a logo. Logos can include words as well. A trademark tells consumers who made the product. With a registration, it's possible to stop others from using a confusingly similar mark in the same or a related industry. Trademarks that rely on a fanciful word or a word that does not have a readily apparent connection to the product or service being sold tend to be the strongest. Trademarks that merely describe the product or service may not be entitled to registration. 
 
As with patents, it is possible to pursue trademark protection in other countries. U.S. and foreign registrations typically must be renewed every 10 years, and there is no limit on the number of renewals. 
 


Copyrights 

A book, movie, photograph or computer code are all examples of items that can be protected by copyright. The protection is only available to things that can be reduced to tangible media. Accordingly, it is not possible to copyright an idea or a process. Someone who holds a copyright has the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute the protected work, rights which may be licensed to others. 
 
Copyrights on works published after 1977 typically last for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. If the work was produced within the course of employment, then the term is between 95 to 120 years, depending upon when the work was published. 
 


Trade Secrets 

When a patent application is published or a patent is issued, it becomes public knowledge. The patent holder has the right to exclude others from taking advantage of this technology, but only for a limited time period. If a company has a formula, recipe or process that they want to keep private for as long as possible, then they hold it as a trade secret. They must make ongoing, reasonable efforts to maintain the secrecy of this item to prevent it from being exploited by others. 



Which Type of IP Protection Is Best? 

Any type of protection can be helpful to a business. They can protect their inventions with patents and their logo with a trademark. A proprietary process can be covered by a trade secret while publications related to the business can be protected by copyrights. 

The best way to determine which type of IP protection is needed is by working with an intellectual property attorney. Such an attorney can file patent and trademark applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or a copyright application with the U.S. Copyright Office. Schedule a consultation to learn more.

Author: Jeff Williams

Jeff Williams is an experienced mechanical engineer and lawyer that consults closely with clients in a strait forward and clear manner.  He brings a particular set of strengths and unique perspectives to the firm.   

 

Jeff received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Arizona State University in 2005.  He was an engineer for a number of years at a number of large corporations before pursuing his law degree.  He graduated from Texas A&M University School of Law (formerly Texas Wesleyan University School of Law) with a J.D. in 2010.  By combining his education and prior work experience into the field of intellectual property law, Jeff has developed key skills to fully assist clients. 

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