Unless you’re an intellectual property attorney, chances are good that everything IP-related seems complicated. Intellectual property is complex, which is why it’s wise to work with an experienced attorney as your guide. Additionally, it helps to understand some key phrases and concepts.

What Is Intellectual Property?

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, “intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.”

Accordingly, IP may take many forms such as a new product, the name of the product, a logo that’s used in conjunction with the sale of the product and many other things. Each of these types of IP is protected by patents, trademarks, copyrights and common law rights.

Although IP may be intangible, it can be an extremely valuable asset. People who have a great idea but not the ability to manufacturer it may license their rights to others, thereby earning royalties.

What Does Intellectual Property Protect?

This depends upon the kind of intellectual property at issue. A product, and the way that it works, may be protected with a patent. Products that have a distinctive look may be covered by a design patent.

Trademarks are used to protect the name of a product as well as logos and slogans that are used to advertise or sell the product.

It’s also possible to obtain copyright protection for everything from the text on the website where the product is sold to the verbiage that is used in the instruction manual.

Who Owns Intellectual Property?

Generally, the person who designs or devises the IP is the one who owns it. If that individual is the employee of a company and creates that IP within the capacity of their employment, then it is likely that the employer actually owns the IP. This ownership may be formalized with an Assignment of the IP rights or another similar agreement.

What Can I Patent?

Products that are new and novel generally are patentable. Similarly, it may be possible to patent novel, non-obvious improvements to existing products. Some patents are granted for systems or methods, such as the particular way in which an item is manufactured. Inventors have even been able to obtain patent protection when they invent a new way to use a known item.

What Exactly Is a Patent?

The World Intellectual Property Organization defines patents as “an exclusive right granted for an invention, which is a product or a process that provides, in general, a new way of doing something, or offers a new technical solution to a problem.”

Basically, when you hold a patent, you have the right to prevent others from making, selling, using, offering for sale or importing any products that unfairly use the proprietary technology that is covered by your patent.

How Long Does a Patent Last?

This depends upon the country covered by the patent. In the U.S., utility patents are given a 20-year term that ends 20 years after the filing date of the application for patent. U.S. design patents have a term of 15 years from the date of grant.

While no maintenance fees are due to keep design patents in force, U.S. utility patents can only remain active for their full term if the patent owner pays maintenance fees approximately every four years.

In many foreign countries, patent terms of about 20 years are common, but it may be necessary to pay annual annuities to keep the patent in force.

Which Countries Does My Patent Cover?

Most countries have their own patent laws and patent offices. If you apply for a U.S. patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, then any resulting patent will be valid in the U.S. only.

You also may have opportunities to file for patent protection in other countries where you plan to sell, manufacture or otherwise do business.

How Can I Apply for a Patent?

Writing and prosecuting a patent application is a complex and time-consuming process that is loaded with pitfalls. Because it is a very particular area of U.S. law, it is always wise to ask a qualified IP attorney to write, file and prosecute the application on your behalf. This ensures a more efficient process that may mean that you get broader and more meaningful protection than you could otherwise have obtained.

Is It OK to Tell People About My Invention?

This generally is not a good idea, as it may preclude you from obtaining patent protection in the U.S. and elsewhere. Meet with an IP attorney before any disclosure of your idea.

What Is a Trademark?

The World Intellectual Property Organization defines a trademark as “a distinctive sign which identifies certain goods or services as those produced or provided by a specific person or enterprise.”