Protecting Your Intellectual Property

Intellectual property is the lifeblood of many businesses. Some say it is the most valuable thing in the world today. You need to protect your IP. Patents. copyrights. trademarks and trade secrets are the essential tools that protect your intellectual property. Many people find them confusing. But they are not that difficult to understand.

Patents protect ideas, specifically inventions or designs. They give the patent-holder the exclusive right to manufacture, market and sell things products from those inventions or designs for a limited time from the date of filing the patent application. A U.S utility patent is generally granted for 20 years from the filing date, subject to periodic maintenance fees, and a design patent is generally granted protection for 14 years. A patent allows the holder to exclude others from making, selling or using the invention. Trademarks are used to distinguish a business from its competitors.

Copyrights protect the expression of ideas, usually in written, graphical, artistic or musical form.  For fullest protection, copyrights need to be registered with the United States Copyright Office.  They are durable:  As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.   Copyright allows the author the exclusive to modify, distribute, perform, create, display and copy the work that the author has made.

Trademarks protect the branding of goods and services in commerce.  Branding is valuable.  A trademark can be a word, phrase, symbol, design, a color, or even a sound which identifies and distinguishes your goods or services in the marketplace.  Properly chosen, properly maintained trademarks keep your branding safe from others who might use confusingly similar marks that could harm your business reputation and erode your sales.  Trademarks must be carefully chosen, carefully defended and above all properly maintained.  If you don’t defend your marks, they could become generic, and if you don’t maintain your marks, you can lose them.  But an incontestable mark, properly maintained, can last indefinitely.

Trade secrets are information, including a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, or process, that: (1) derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to the public or to other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use; and (2) Is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy.  Trade secrets can be kept secret infinitely.  But without reasonable efforts to maintain secrecy, a misappropriated trade secret can lose valuable legal protections under statutes that protect them,  A periodic intellectual property audit can help ensure that you are properly protecting your valuable trade secrets.