Intellectual property (IP) is defined as creations of the mind, such as inventions, artwork, designs, and symbols or terms used in commerce. Simply put, intellectual property is used as an umbrella term for intangible assets and types of property that are not physical in nature. The idea behind the intellectual property is that products of human intellect should be protected in a similar way that tangible, physical assets are. Many countries, including the United States, have legal measures in place to protect certain types of intellectual property. The United States acknowledges several different types of intellectual property, such as trademarks, patents, copyrights, and trade secrets.
A patent is a particular IP right typically granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Patents provide the inventor of a product or service with the exclusive rights to its process, design, or system. There are three main types of patents in the US: utility patents, design patents and plant patents.
Patents generally have a 20-year validity period beginning with the date the patent application was filed with the USPTO.
Copyright laws provide original inventors or creators with the exclusive right to use, copy or duplicate their intellectual property. Through common law copyright laws, a work does not need to be registered with the USPTO in order to qualify for copyright protection. Nonetheless, registration is highly recommended to establish a public record of ownership of the creation.
Work created after January 1, 1978 is protected by copyright laws for the life of the creator plus an additional 70 years. Work created before 1978 is protected for up to 28 years.
A trademark is a recognizable image, phrase, word, or symbol that identifies a product and legally distinguishes it from similar ones. Trademark laws protect an original creator's work from infringement by competitors. A trademark is often closely associated with a company’s brand.
Unregistered trademarks are identified by using the ™ symbol. Alternatively, trademarks registered with the USPTO use the ® symbol. After a trademark is registered, it remains valid for 10 years.
Trade secrets refer to a company’s methods, processes, or information that is not generally known to the public. Generally, US intellectual property laws protect trade secrets even if they aren't registered.
The protection of trade secrets is not limited in time. Trade secret rights may continue indefinitely as long as the information remains secret. Coca-Cola's secret formula, for example, is considered a trade secret. Since the recipe is locked in a vault, it has remained a trade secret.
Intellectual property is a complex industry. IP rights and regulations differ from type to type, so keeping track of them can be difficult. If you would like to learn more about your rights as an intellectual property owner, or if you are interested in registering your creation with the USPTO, reach out to a professional intellectual property lawyer immediately.