Four types of intellectual property to protect your idea and how to use them (2022)

The table below illustrates each type of intellectual property and what they protect.

Type of IPProtectsInfringementRegistration ProcessTermComparative Costs
PATENTS – Utility PatentFunctional AspectsMake, Use, Offer, Sale, ImportYes20 years from filing dateExpensive
PATENTS – Design PatentOrnamental FeaturesMake, Use, Offer, Sale, ImportYes15 years from grant dateModerate
TRADEMARKSBrandsUse in commerceOptionalIndefinite as long as in useInexpensive
COPYRIGHTSWorks of AuthorshipCopying, Derivative works, Performance, etc.OptionalLife plus 70 yearsInexpensive
TRADE SECRETSInformationMisappropriationNoIndefiniteDepends

You must select the appropriate type of intellectual property to effectively protect your idea or device. Below, I explain how to choose the right type of IP to best protect your invention.

Multiple types of IP rights can protect an invention

Most people don’t realize that they can protect their invention using multiple types of IP rights. Yes, all four types of intellectual property rights can protect one product.

Take, for example, a can of Coca-Cola®.

The brand, “Coca-Cola” is a trademark.

The formula for the actual soda is a trade secret, while copyright law protects the artwork on the bottle.

(Video) Four Types of Intellectual Property: patents, trademarks, copyrights & trade secrets

Both (1) a design patent and (2) a trademark (i.e., trade dress) can protect the shape of the Coca-Cola® bottle.

Four types of intellectual property to protect your idea and how to use them (1)

Likewise, you can use one or more of the different types of intellectual property to protect your product.

Be open-minded when you think through the types of intellectual property that might be applicable to protect your invention.

Related Articles:
Basics of Patents, Trademarks, Copyrights and Trade Secrets
Limits on Trade Dress Protection when also securing a utility patent

i. Trade Secret Protection

How to identify your trade secret?

To identify the trade secrets in your idea, you need to understand the definition of a trade secret. Under trade secret law, a “trade secret” is any valuable information that is not publicly known and the owner has taken “reasonable” steps to maintain the secrecy of the information. Information, such as business plans, customer lists, ideas related to your research and development cycle can be protected by trade secrets.

You don’t submit your trade secret for approval. No government body examines, approves, or registers your trade secret. To establish your information as a trade secret, you need to treat the information as a trade secret. For example, you allow only those with a need to know to have access to your trade secret information. Disclosures should be done only under a nondisclosure agreement. When you take steps to keep information secret, that information becomes your trade secret.

When someone misappropriates your trade secret, you have to prove in a court of law that the information qualifies as your trade secret. You have to show that the trade secret information was valuable because of its secrecy, and you must show the steps you took to keep it secret. Put simply, the owner of the trade secret information must prove that the confidential information fits the definition of a trade secret given above.

Trade secret protection lasts until the information is no longer valuable, the information is not secret, or the owner no longer takes reasonable steps to maintain its secrecy.

Trade secret law specifically protects the misappropriation of trade secret information. A wrongful or nefarious act must accompany the acquisition of the information for there to be a misappropriation of a trade secret. For example, if someone acting as an imposter steals trade secret information from its owner, the owner can sue the imposter for misappropriation of trade secrets. However, if the owner voluntarily gives trade secret information to an individual without limitation, no misappropriation of a trade secret has occurred, and the owner cannot sue.

The information may also lose its status as a trade secret. This loss of rights can occur if there has been a lack of reasonable effort to keep the information secret and/or the information is de facto no longer a secret.

(Video) Understanding The 4 Types Of Intellectual Property

When to protect your idea as a trade secret rather than securing a patent?

Most inventions start as trade secrets, which provide short-term protection before the marketing of your invention. Inventors are often initially cautious about revealing their inventions to others, even their patent attorneys, and this is a good instinct to have.

Trade secret protection is not appropriate for the long-term protection of any ideas which can be readily ascertained by reverse engineering or for inventions that can be independently created. If the information can be reverse engineered or independently created, then there is no nefarious act. If there is no nefarious act that accompanies the acquisition of the information, there is generally no misappropriation or wrongful appropriation of the trade secret information. Generally, trade secret protection is not optimal for mechanical or software products since both utilize a user interface that is available to the public and can, therefore, be reverse-engineered.

Trade secret protection may be optimal and sufficient for ideas and inventions that can be used secretly and, therefore, could not be reverse engineered (e.g., recipes).

ii. Trademark protection

Your brand needs to be protected because you want to protect the investment in time and money to build up your trademarks. You do not want to invest time and money only to find out later that you have to switch to a different trademark because someone else is already using your trademark. In this instance, you would be infringing on that person’s trademark and will have to switch to a different trademark.

Trademarks protect brands. The name of the product associated with the product or service is called the trademark. Under trademark law, a trademark is anything by which customers recognize a product or the source of a product. Typically, that would be the words or names associated with the product or service. When the brand or trademark is made up of words, we refer to this as a wordmark.

Related Articles:
Trademark registration, common law, state and federal
How to select a trademark?
How to obtain a federal trademark registration?

Other things can serve as your trademark. For example, sounds, colors, smells, and anything else that can bring the product and/or its owner to the minds of a consumer can serve as your trademark. The most common types of trademarks are wordmarks, logos, and slogans. If the product configuration (e.g., a Coca-Cola® bottle) or packaging (e.g., Tiffany’s blue packaging) are nonfunctional and recall the product’s maker (i.e., source of the product) for consumers, the configuration can be protected and registered as a trademark.

If you are starting out, protect the wordmark first (i.e., standard character mark). Then, you can seek trademark protection for the other forms of trademarks if you have the available funds to do so and if it makes sense in your overall marketing and business strategy.

To properly protect your trademark, you should conduct a search to find out if others are using a similar mark to yours. If not, then file a trademark application to get your trademark registered.

In the table, registration of a trademark was optional because you accrue trademark rights simply by using the mark in commerce. When you sell a product or perform service under a brand, trademark law gives you common law trademark rights that you can assert against others in your small geographical region where you used the mark. Hence, to obtain trademark rights, you do not need to register your trademark, but there are significant advantages for doing so, such as nationwide rights and the right to block others from securing a registered trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

iii. Copyright Protection

Most products have one or more aspects that can be protected by copyright law. For example, the images and words on the product packaging, the label, the product itself, and the webpage can be protected with copyright. These literary and artistic works are protectable under copyright law.

(Video) Four Types of Intellectual Property Your Invention Needs

The advantages of copyright registration are that it is inexpensive to secure, and the law allows you to demand attorney fees from infringers. Often, your attorney fees are more costly than your damages due to someone copying your images and words without your authorization. Hence, being able to demand your attorney fees from the infringer is significant leverage that can be used to force infringers to settle early on in the legal process. Without a copyright registration, you would have to pay your attorney fees.

Under copyright laws, copyrights protect original works of authorship that are fixed in a “tangible medium of expression.” This definition means that the authored or creative work has been written down on a piece of paper, saved on an electronic storage device (e.g., hard drive or flash drive), or preserved in some other tangible format. Examples of copyrightable works include movies, videos, photos, books, diaries, articles, and software. Copyright does not protect ideas or useful items, which is the function of patents. Although a software program is a functional item, it can be protected by copyrights due to the creativity used in the selection, ordering, and arrangement of the various pieces of code in the software.

You automatically have a copyrighted product in your creative expressions at the time they are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. The copyright lasts for a very long time. For any work created on or after January 1, 1978, the term of copyright protection is the entirety of the author’s life plus seventy years after the author’s death. For works made for hire as well as anonymous and pseudonymous works, the duration of copyright is ninety-five years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

Copyright does not need to be registered, but registration does have significant advantages. You can file your copyright application at Importantly, if your copyright is registered, your attorney fees can be shifted to the infringer as discussed above, and you can ask the judge to award statutory damages. Statutory damages allow a court to impose liability on an infringer for up to 150,000 dollars, even if the damages are significantly less than that amount.

Related article: Gray market goods for copyrighted products no longer illegal

iv. Patent Protection

Two types of patents are:

  1. Utility Patent (Function) and
  2. Design Patent (Aesthetic).

Under U.S. patent laws, a utility patent protects a useful machine, process, manufacture, and composition of matter. A design patent protects the ornamentation (i.e., appearance, looks, shape, etc.) of a product.

The following discussion will help you to identify which type of patent (i.e., utility or design patent) is optimal to protect your invention. Similar to the discussion above about securing multiple types of IP rights for your product or invention, you might be able to obtain both a utility and a design patent to protect your invention.

How to determine which type of patent is better for your invention?

Utility and design patents are different. You need to know which one to obtain to protect your invention.

If, when you describe your invention to others, you describe the invention in terms of its function or utility, a utility patent application would be the best type of protection.

If the invention is described in terms of its aesthetics, a design patent application would be the best type of protection. The design patent protects the ornamentation, sculpture, pattern design, layout, and other aesthetic features of a product.

(Video) The 4 types of Intellectual Property

Sometimes, you will explain your product by using words that describe both function and aesthetics. In that case, you may be able to get both types of patents. However, if funds are limited, you may have to choose one of the two types of patents that are better suited for your invention. Seek competent patent counsel in this instance since a patent attorney would be best able to help you make the right decision.

Utility patent basics:

To get a utility patent, you need to apply for a patent with the USPTO. If you start to market your product without applying for the patent, then eventually (i.e., after one year), your idea will be dedicated to the public.

The term for a utility patent is generally 20 years from the filing of your nonprovisional patent application and starts immediately when the patent office issues your patent.

To learn more about the patent process, read these other articles:

  • Steps in the patent process and costs
  • 4 steps in the patent process
  • Patent Process: Invention to Patent Granted (Comprehensive)
  • Patent process timeline and major milestones
  • Patent process, overall steps and procedures
  • Overview of patent process

Design patent basics:

To get a design patent, you need to file a design patent application with the USPTO. If you start to market your product without applying for the registration, then eventually (i.e., after one year), your idea will be dedicated to the public.

The term for a design patent is 15 years from the grant date of your design patent.

Situations where you might want to seek a design patent:

Design patents are useful only in a few cases. Why? If the infringer changes the look of the product so that it does not look like what is shown in the design patent, then there is no design patent infringement. The following is a non-exhaustive list of situations where a design patent might be useful.

Situation 1: To block the importation of overseas manufacturer overruns

Design patents are useful for blocking the sale of counterfeits, the importation of overrun (i.e., excess production), or reject products that have been manufactured overseas for the inventor. These imports will be identical to the drawings in the design patent, and if imported into the United States, they may be blocked by Customs. If these products do enter into the United States, the importers, distributors, users, and manufacturers may be sued for infringement.

Situation 2: Products sold in sets

Design patents are also useful for products sold in sets (e.g., furniture) because buyers must purchase products that look like the original product to maintain the complete sets. By obtaining a patent on these types of products, you can block others from selling products that look like your product covered in the design patent.

Situation 3: Large market leaders

Design patents may also be useful for large manufacturers. For example, Apple, Inc. obtained several design patents for various parts of the iPhone, including the housing and the arrangement of the icons on the phone’s screen.

Related Articles for Protecting Inventions

  • Four types of intellectual property you can use to protect your idea and how to use them
  • 8 tips to successfully protect your idea
  • Reasons to only market your invention after securing patent pendency
  • Patent protection benefits and why every inventor should consider getting one
  • Protect your idea when pitching to an investor, potential licensee, or buyer
  • Patent attorney and getting them to sign a confidentiality agreement
  • Can a confidentiality agreement protect me like a patent application?
  • Dangers of 1 yr grace period under first-inventor-to-file system
  • Beware of marketing an invention before filing a patent application
  • Risks and benefits of securing software patent protection
  • Strategy to overcome patentable subject matter rejection
  • Best uses for design patents
  • Overview of Patents and Intellectual Property
  • Pros and cons of filing a continuation-in-part application
  • Benefits of Patent Protection
  • Continuation, divisional and continuation-in-part applications
  • Importance of Documenting the Invention
  • Abstract ideas require something more for patent protection
  • Abstract idea hard to define for patent eligibility purposes
  • USPTO Report On patent-eligible subject matter
  • Broad patents spread a wide net but more likely to be invalid
  • Misconceptions of provisional patent application
(Video) Beware Of The Four Different Types Of Intellectual Property

The author, James Yang, is a patent attorney in Orange County, California. Contact Jamesto schedule a consultation and discuss your invention.


What are 4 types of intellectual property protection? ›

Patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets are valuable assets of the company and understanding how they work and how they are created is critical to knowing how to protect them.

What is intellectual property and explain how do you protect them? ›

Inventors, designers, developers and authors can protect the ideas they have developed, for instance by means of copyright or patents. The aim is to prevent others from wrongly profiting from their creations or inventions.

What are the four types of intellectual property discussed by the text? ›

Copyrights, Patents, Trademarks, and Trade Secrets – Four Types of Intellectual Properties.

What are three examples of intellectual property and how do you protect it? ›

IP is protected in law by, for example, patents, copyright and trademarks, which enable people to earn recognition or financial benefit from what they invent or create.

How do you use knowledge in intellectual property? ›

Table of contents
  1. Keep it under scrutiny.
  2. Be aware of your Intellectual Property Rights.
  3. Consult an expert.
  4. Double check if your idea is unique.
  5. Hire an auditor.
  6. Keep a record of almost everything related.
  7. Protect your IP without delay.
12 Oct 2021

Why is it important to protect your intellectual property? ›

Intellectual property protection is critical to fostering innovation. Without protection of ideas, businesses and individuals would not reap the full benefits of their inventions and would focus less on research and development.

Why should intellectual property rights be protected? ›

IPR provide certain exclusive rights to the inventors or creators of that property, in order to enable them to reap commercial benefits from their creative efforts or reputation. There are several types of intellectual property protection like patent, copyright, trademark, etc.

What is the most important type of intellectual property? ›

Patent. A patent is used to prevent an invention from being created, sold, or used by another party without permission. Patents are the most common type of intellectual property rights that come to people's minds when they think of intellectual property rights protection.

How do you protect an idea? ›

The five essential legal tools for protecting ideas are patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade dress unfair competition laws, and trade secrets. Some of these legal tools can also be used creatively as marketing aids, and often more than one form of protection is available for a single design or innovation.

What is intellectual property right explain types? ›

Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) refer to the bundle of legal rights granted with the aim to protect the creations of the intellect of either an individual or a group or an organization individually or collectively. Intellectual property is divided into two broad classes: Industrial Property and Copyright.

What are examples of intellectual property? ›

Utility patents: for tangible inventions, such as products, machines, devices, and composite materials, as well as new and useful processes. Design patents: the ornamental designs on manufactured products. Plant patents: new varieties of plants.

What are the three types of intellectual property and how do they protect the business? ›

The three most common types of intellectual property are patents, trademarks and copyrights, and they each provide different and varying levels of protection. Patents, specifically, utility patents as opposed to design patents, protect inventions that are new and nonobvious over existing technology known as prior art.

Can we protect an idea using intellectual property rights justify your answer with valid reasoning? ›

The short answer is no. Unfortunately, despite what you may have heard from late night television commercials, there is no effective way to protect an idea with any form of intellectual property protection. Copyrights protect expression and creativity, not innovation. Patents protect inventions.

How do you use intellectual property in a sentence? ›

(1) Companies should protect their intellectual property with patents and trademarks. (2) The laws on intellectual property are murky. (3) Do you know the intellectual property rights? (4) The firm was found to have infringed intellectual property rights.

How do you manage intellectual property? ›

Top tips for managing intellectual property
  1. Invest in the right advice early on. ...
  2. Identify and monitor IP. ...
  3. Identify an IP strategy. ...
  4. Value your IP portfolio. ...
  5. Company names and/or domain names. ...
  6. Registered designs. ...
  7. Make contracts watertight. ...
  8. If a dispute arises, specialist advice should be sought as soon as possible.

How do you patent a name? ›

How to trademark a business name
  1. First, decide if a trademark is right for you or if you should pursue another avenue. ...
  2. Next, you must choose the mark to submit to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). ...
  3. Once you've found a suitable trademark name, prepare then submit an application to the USPTO.
14 Jun 2021

How do I copyright a name? ›

Registering a trademark for a company name is pretty straightforward. Many businesses can file an application online in less than 90 minutes, without a lawyer's help. The simplest way to register is on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site,

How do you patent a logo? ›

While you can learn how to patent an idea, logos cannot be patented because the term patent describes ownership that protects inventions. However, logos can be protected in a similar way by a trademark or service mark. Trademarks protect logos attached to products while service marks protect logos attached to services.

Why intellectual property is important to me as a student and future professional? ›

In today's globally competitive economy, role of intellectual property is inevitable in every profession ranging from doctors, engineers, technicians, managers, among others. Therefore it makes it all the more important for every working professional to understand and appreciate the nuances of intellectual property.

What do you understand by intellectual property What is its importance? ›

Intellectual property rights are the rights given to persons over the creations of their minds. They usually give the creator an exclusive right over the use of his/her creation for a certain period of time.

Why intellectual property is important to a business? ›

It gives the owner of the property the opportunity to share their creations with limited competition and protects the company's competitive point of differentiation. Intellectual property rights can sometimes be an extremely valuable bargaining tool rights, and it can be sold for financial gain.

What is the role of intellectual property? ›

The role of Intellectual property in the economy are: To provide exclusive rights to the and to protect the interest of the creator and encourage investment in research and information creation; Forbid the competitors or anybody from exploiting or misuse the property without the permission of the creator; and.

What intellectual property rights are protected by copyright? ›

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.

What are the 4 types of patents? ›

Learning how to use each kind of patent application will help any inventor better utilize the U.S. Patent Office to protect his or her invention.
There are four different patent types:
  • Utility patent. This is what most people think of when they think about a patent. ...
  • Provisional patent. ...
  • Design patent. ...
  • Plant patent.
29 Jul 2022

Which form of intellectual property can provide the longest protection? ›

A trade secret can be protected indefinitely as long as the secret is commercially valuable, its value derives from the fact that it is secret, and the owner take reasonable precautions to maintain its secrecy.

How do I protect my idea from being stolen? ›

Four Ways to Stop Someone from Stealing Your Idea
  1. Trade Secrets. Trade secrets are generally the least expensive strategy to keep an idea from being taken. ...
  2. Copyrights. Copyrights are generally the second least expensive strategy to protect a piece of work. ...
  3. Trademarks. ...
  4. Patents.
22 Nov 2021

Which of the following is one way intellectual property is protected? ›

Copyrights, which cover works of authorship, such as books, logos and software, is part of intellectual property protection, as are patents, which protect inventions. Other types of IP include trademarks, designs and trade secrets.

What are different forms of intellectual property explain each with example? ›

What Are the Types of Intellectual Property? There are four main types of intellectual property rights, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. Owners of intellectual property frequently use more than one of these types of intellectual property law to protect the same intangible assets.

What is intellectual property in simple words? ›

Intellectual property (IP) refers to the ownership of an idea or design by the person who came up with it. It is a term used in property law. It gives a person certain exclusive rights to a distinct type of creative design, meaning that nobody else can copy or reuse that creation without the owner's permission.

What are the main forms of intellectual property? ›

The key forms of intellectual property protection are patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets.

What are the different types of intellectual property risk? ›

Intellectual property risks refer to the analysis of what an individual or company needs to be prepared for when deciding to protect their intellectual property (IP).
What Is Intellectual Property?
  • Copyright pirates.
  • Patent flouters.
  • Brand impersonators.
  • Trade secret thieves.

What are 3 examples of works that can be protected by copyright? ›

What are some examples of copyright works?
  • A novel.
  • A poem.
  • A photograph.
  • A movie.
  • Lyrics to a song.
  • A musical composition in the form of sheet music.
  • A sound recording.
  • A painting.

What are the laws protecting intellectual property? ›

The three main areas of intellectual property law that innovators use to protect their ideas are Trademarks, Patents, and Copyrights.

What are examples of intellectual property? ›

Utility patents: for tangible inventions, such as products, machines, devices, and composite materials, as well as new and useful processes. Design patents: the ornamental designs on manufactured products. Plant patents: new varieties of plants.

Why is it important to protect intellectual property? ›

Intellectual property protection is critical to fostering innovation. Without protection of ideas, businesses and individuals would not reap the full benefits of their inventions and would focus less on research and development.

Why is intellectual property important? ›

Strong and Enforced Intellectual Property Rights Protect Consumers and Families. Strong IP rights help consumers make an educated choice about the safety, reliability, and effectiveness of their purchases. Enforced IP rights ensure products are authentic, and of the high-quality that consumers recognize and expect.

What are the 4 types of patents? ›

Learning how to use each kind of patent application will help any inventor better utilize the U.S. Patent Office to protect his or her invention.
There are four different patent types:
  • Utility patent. This is what most people think of when they think about a patent. ...
  • Provisional patent. ...
  • Design patent. ...
  • Plant patent.
29 Jul 2022

What type of intellectual property can they use to stop others from copying their invention? ›

Patents protect the intellectual property created by inventors.

What are the 7 intellectual property rights? ›

Rights. Intellectual property rights include patents, copyright, industrial design rights, trademarks, plant variety rights, trade dress, geographical indications, and in some jurisdictions trade secrets.

How do you protect an idea? ›

The five essential legal tools for protecting ideas are patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade dress unfair competition laws, and trade secrets. Some of these legal tools can also be used creatively as marketing aids, and often more than one form of protection is available for a single design or innovation.

What is protected under copyright explain with examples? ›

Copyright (or author's right) is a legal term used to describe the rights that creators have over their literary and artistic works. Works covered by copyright range from books, music, paintings, sculpture, and films, to computer programs, databases, advertisements, maps, and technical drawings.

What is copyright explain with example? ›

Copyright vs. trademarks and patents
What is protected?Original works of authorship
ExamplesAutobiography of Malcolm X (book), Hamilton (stage play)
Benefits of protectionPrevents others from copying or otherwise exploiting the copyrighted content without the copyright holder's permission

How can I protect my intellectual property online? ›

To protect your intellectual property online, add your name and/or website URL or watermark to your training videos and documents. That way, if your content has been shared illegally, it has your logo, face and website.

What means intellectual property? ›

Intellectual property (IP) is a term for any intangible asset -- something proprietary that doesn't exist as a physical object but has value. Examples of intellectual property include designs, concepts, software, inventions, trade secrets, formulas and brand names, as well as works of art.

How does intellectual property protect the rights of the artist? ›

It is intended largely to encourage the development of art, science, and information by granting certain property rights to all artists, which include inventors in the arts and the sciences. These rights allow artists to protect themselves from infringement, or the unauthorized use and misuse of their creations.


1. How to Protect Your Idea (everything you need to know)
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2. Intellectual Property - How to Protect Yourself
(Financially Simple Business)
3. How to Find & Protect Your Intellectual Property Assets || how to do a business IP audit
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4. Intellectual Property: Protect Your Idea And Develop An IP Strategy
5. Protecting Your Intellectual Property
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6. Understanding Intellectual Property (IP)

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