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The Main Types of Intellectual Property and How to Protect Them

Do you need help protecting your ideas or inventions? If so, you’re probably wondering what type of protections are appropriate for the various stages of your creative process.

You might have already taken some first steps, but are you sure that your creations are fully protected?

The process of protecting your ideas can be long, tedious, and costly, especially if you are going in blind. There are several different types of intellectual property, and you need to learn exactly what they all are and how you can properly protect your ideas. Here, we explain the four main types of intellectual property and what you can do to protect them.


Types of Intellectual Property


Intellectual properties are creations of the human mind and could be anything from inventions, works of art, and commercial symbols.

Companies and individuals seek legal protections to protect these ideas from unauthorized use. This is especially important when a business holds a large number of intangible assets.

An individual or company must be proactive in seeking all protections available within the law. It’s always the responsibility of the rights-owner to push back against infringing parties. For this reason, frequent legal counsel is important, especially at the conception stage.

If you are a company, make sure that every team member signs an intellectual property agreement. The wording will need to clarify that your business owns the creative works of its employees.

When a company has an active customer base, display copyright usage restrictions on all protected products. If this isn’t possible, then at least print notices on the supporting documents.

Next, we’ll run through the four types of intellectual property protection offered by the United States law.




The most basic idea that needs protection is the expression of an idea itself. If you’re wondering how to protect intellectual property, document every stage of creation. Note that copyright law does not extend to the underlying ideas or concepts themselves.

Any creative work has protection, but the copyright is limited to exact copies or very near it. The creator of a work has the sole rights to it at the point of origin unless they permit a transfer of these rights to another party.

Copyright law automatically protects any work that’s created in a tangible form. It must be a reproducible medium or another communicable method.

Works can be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, and though this provides strong evidence of originality, although this is not required. Copyright law is also still enforceable even in the absence of any written notice or warning.

Register a work within 90 days of publishing it to have the strongest protection. The creator is usually afforded lifetime copyright, with an extra 70 years. A “fair use” exception exists, where small sections of a created work are acceptable for uses like research.

Employees should sign “work made for hire” agreements to make clear that the employer is the author (and copyright holder), not the employee.




Elements that are representative of a company or brand are trademarks. These elements are commonly logos and words, but other forms exist, such as sonic branding (music and idents).

Since companies use branding elements to stand out from competitors, trademarks don’t need to be approved to exist. Consistent use of branding elements in several states will give you limited common law protection.

Full government registration affords much better legal recourse. You’ll also have the right to take infringers to federal court, where penalties are much higher than at the state level.

Search the trademark files at the USPTO before applying to ensure that a similar mark isn’t already in existence. A preliminary search should be a key consideration before bringing a new product to the marketplace. You might otherwise have to withdraw a product after launch if you are found to infringe upon a trademark.

Businesses need to take legal action as soon as evidence of an infringement first appears. A cease-and-desist request might be enough to discourage continued violation of the trademark.




An intellectual property patent will protect an idea as long as it’s original (novel), useful, and not obvious. A patent holder will maintain exclusive rights for up to 20 years. Once expired, the idea will become public domain. The unauthorized use, manufacture, or sale of the idea is protected by the patent holder for the term.

If a patent is granted, the action is considered good evidence of its inherent validity. The onus is on the infringer to prove that the patent should not have been issued in the first place.

There are three categories of patents available:

  • Utility – Protects the process of “how it’s made” or “how it works”
  • Design – Protects the unique appearance (non-functional aspects)
  • Plant – Protects new plant varieties (non-seed generated)

You can apply for a provisional patent first, which is good for a year and helps speed up the review process. It’s a complicated application process, so the services of a patent attorney are usually recommended if you do not believe that you can handle the process on your own.


Trade Secret


You can’t register a trade secret with the government, but a trade secret still has intellectual property protection. This extends to all the procedural systems and formulas that provide a competitive advantage. This information must be secret, not already known (or available), and acquired at the expense of the company that claims ownership.

Rights to a trade secret are forfeited once the information is discovered through legitimate means. Security systems must be in place to safeguard trade secrets for legal action to be initiated. Confidentiality agreements, restricted access, and password-protection are some ways to safeguard trade secrets.

The threat of disclosing a trade secret is enough to trigger a lawsuit. From the moment of discovering the violation of a trade secret, a company has three years to take action (Section 6 of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act).


Patent Your Invention Today


We’ve shown that inventors have several ways of protecting their various types of intellectual property. Don’t let someone else get away with stealing your hard work just because you missed out on taking a few crucial actions.

If you’re looking for more information about obtaining a patent for intellectual property, we can help you. We are a group of patent experts dedicated to sharing our knowledge, and we created a revolutionary patent learning center to do just that.

Signup today for unlimited access.

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