If you own a business or are thinking of starting a new business, you should familiarize yourself with what is known as intellectual property. Intellectual property is a phrase used to describe certain legal rights that people may have in “creations of the mind,” such as works of art, writing, inventions, designs, ideas, music, or choreography. There are four main types of intellectual property: copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and trademarks.
A copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects the original authors of published and unpublished creations. The copyright in these works remains the exclusive property of the creator for a specified period of time under copyright law. After the time period has elapsed, these works are open to others for reproduction and reissue.
Copyrights are registered through the US Copyright Office Copyrights filed in 1978 or after will last for the entire life of the author plus 70 years after death.
Patents are legal property rights that apply to inventions (as opposed to works of any type of art or literacy) and must be distributed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Patents typically apply to items such as processes, machines, manufacturing designs, biological discoveries, or “compositions of matter.”
Like copyrights, patents are available to inventors only for a certain period of time before they expire. Patents generally last 20 years after the date the patent application is filed.
Trade secrets are practices, designs, formulas, processes, recipes, or ideas used by a company that allow it to gain influence in its industry. Generally, trade secrets are kept hidden by the means themselves, rather than protected by government policies such as patents or copyrights. An example of self-protection commonly used with trade secrets is keeping relevant information in a bank vault. Since trade secrets lack legal protection, once they are leaked to the general public, they are available for use by anyone.
Trademarks include any word, phrase, symbol, logo, design or device that is used in association with or in particular to distinguish it from other products in that industry. Trademarks are used for identification purposes and are legally protected once they have been registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office.