While there are many different types of intellectual property, from a legal standpoint in the United States, there are only four: patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. Intellectual property must be registered in one of these four categories to claim any type of legal protection. Also, intellectual property must be registered with the state as well as federally. Once these precautions have been taken, the person or company that filed the claims can legally file a complaint with federal or state courts against infringers. But what type of protection covers what type of intellectual property?
Patents cover inventions, including both tangible objects and things like special processes, and grant intellectual property rights to the inventor. Patent registration can take up to a year or more. With a patent, an inventor has a legal right to prevent others from producing or selling his or her invention. A U.S. patent will not stop others in foreign countries from reproducing an item, so it can be smart to register in foreign countries as well. The term of a new patent is twenty years after registration, although they can be renewed. If a patent expires and is not renewed, the invention becomes public domain.
Trademarks are names, phrases, symbols, sounds or devices that are used to indicate the sources of goods or products and differentiate them from others. The Chevrolet logo is an example of this. Companies build their reputations on their trademarks. A trademark expires after ten years, but, like, patents, they can be renewed; unlike patents, however, trademarks do not have to be registered. If the creator of a name or symbol wants to deter others from using it, he or she need only attach the TM symbol to it. This marks the trademark as their intellectual property.
Copyrights protect “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and visual works. A copyright does not protect the ideas themselves, but rather the expression of those ideas. Only copyright owners are legally allowed to reproduce their works or derive other works from them (for example, make a movie based on a novel). A copyright lasts for fifty years after the author’s life. Registering a copyright is not mandatory, but it can be beneficial, as an artist cannot sue for infringement if a copyright is not registered.
Trade secrets are any confidential information that gives a company a competitive edge. Trade secrets are covered by state rather than federal law. Unauthorized use of a trade secret by a person or company other than the holder is considered an unfair practice. An example of a trade secret would be the recipe for Coca Cola, which has been a trade secret for nearly 120 years.
There can be a lot of legalities and confusing details in protecting intellectual properties, so artists and inventors are encouraged to seek out professional counsel in this matter.