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What Are the Types of Intellectual Property?

3D illustration of a folder, focus on a tab with the word infringement. Conceptual image of copyright law

One of the most valuable tools in the arsenal of any business is intellectual property (IP) protection. Despite its utility, many business owners and entrepreneurs are unfamiliar with the various forms of IP, what they protect, and how they work. Below, we discuss the four principal categories of intellectual property protection. If you need assistance ensuring that your company’s valuable intellectual property remains protected, call a seasoned Houston business law attorney for advice and representation.

Patent

A patent is an exclusive ownership right to a new invention. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) grants property rights to inventors, who can then determine whether and how other parties can use their patented works. Patents can cover product designs/aesthetics, organic plant designs, or products designed for practical purposes (computer software, pharmaceuticals, mechanical devices, etc.).

To obtain patent protection, the inventor/owner must apply to the PTO and provide sufficient technical information about their invention to explain, define, and distinguish their invention. Modern patents are typically granted for 20 years, after which time other parties can mimic the patented design and sell their own versions of the same product.

Trademark

Trademark is another form of intellectual property protection granted by federal law. The PTO defines a trademark as a “word, phrase, symbol, or design, or a combination thereof, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.” Your company logo, mascot, slogan, or even distinguishing color might merit trademark protection. Trademarks typically take the form of words, phrases, and pictures, although there are examples of more unusual trademarks–such as the distinct shape of a Coca-Cola bottle.

To obtain trademark protection, you have to register your trademark with the PTO. The trademark must be renewed regularly to be kept “alive.” If you continue to renew a trademark, and you can prove you are still actively using the trademark, you can renew the trademark indefinitely.

If someone violates your trademark by utilizing your logo without your permission or by using a substantially similar trademark to sell their products and confuse customers as to whether your company was involved, you can sue for injunctive and financial relief.

Copyright

Copyright law protects the owner of original works of intellectual property. Copyright can be used to protect original works of art or literature, including speeches, poems, songs, books, paintings, sculptures, films, and even maps, technical drawings, and computer programs.

Unlike other forms of intellectual property, copyright protection is automatically created once the work is fixed in a tangible form–whether that form is an audio recording, a writing, a picture, or other tangible creation. When someone writes down an original poem, they own that poem, even without seeking additional protection. If someone else wants to use, reproduce, or repurpose your copyrighted work, they’ll need your permission to do so.

In order to exercise copyright protection–such as by forcing others to acknowledge your ownership of a copyright or pay you a penalty for using their copyrighted work without permission–, you’ll need to prove that you were the original creator and have the rights to the work. For that reason, even though you technically own the work as soon as you create it, registering a copyright gives you an advantage in the legal system.

Copyrights have a time limit. The time limit has been extended by Congress over the years–often at the insistence of the Walt Disney Company. For works created after January 1, 1978, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 75 years. Anonymous works or works created for hire have different lifespans.

Trade Secret

Trade secret protection is different from other forms of intellectual property in that the subject of protection is not registered with the government or otherwise made public. While patents, trademarks, and to some extent copyrights are granted protection through registration with the government, trade secrets are protected by being kept secret.

A trade secret is a piece of information that is kept secret (nonpublic), holds value to the owner, and holds value specifically by being kept secret. Trade secrets come in many different forms, including technical formulas, customer lists, algorithms, computer source code, and other valuable data. A trade secret is protected when it derives actual or potential value from not being known to the general public and is the subject of reasonable efforts to maintain secrecy. Reasonable efforts might include, for example, requiring employees to sign a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement.

If an employee steals corporate secrets and gives or sells them to a competitor, who then makes them public or uses them for their own gain, the employee and the competitor may be guilty of “misappropriation” of trade secrets. The owner of the trade secret can sue to stop the other party from sharing or using the trade secret as well as for consequential damages.

If you need legal assistance with a Texas business law matter, contact a thorough and qualified Texas business lawyer at the Houston offices of attorney Leigh Meineke at Stephens | Domnitz | Meineke PLLC by calling 832-706-0244.

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