Having the right IP safeguards in place can literally make or break a company, especially in a hyper-competitive business world— particularly among startups.

Whether you've been in business for 20 years or 20 days, it's increasingly important to proactively guard your ideas and products with the appropriate intellectual property (IP) protection. Having the right IP safeguards in place can literally make or break a company, especially in a hyper-competitive business world (particularly among startups).

Fortunately, it's easier to get started than you might think – and the relatively minimal cost and effort you put in now will pay off down the road when you don't have to challenge a stolen idea or product. And even if you're familiar with common IP protections, it can never hurt to refresh yourself, as the laws are always changing.

In this article, we'll discuss some common types of intellectual property that may be right for your business.


Assumedly, everyone has heard of a patent before – but did you know that there are different types that cover different forms of intellectual property? In the United States, there are three types that are generally recognized:

Utility patents. These are issued for the invention of a new and useful product, process, machine or manufacturing method. They generally permit their owner to exclude others from making, using or selling the invention for a period of up to 20 years from the date of the patent application.

Design patents. These are issued for a new, original and ornamental design embodied in or applied to a manufactured product. They permit their owner to exclude others from making, using or selling the design for a period of 14 years from the date of patent grant.

Plant patents. While rare, these are granted to someone who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant, other than a tuber propagated plant.


Also well known by most people, copyrights cover an expression of an idea, but there are some stipulations of which you may not be aware. A copyright doesn't cover the idea itself, but instead covers how the idea is expressed. For example, if you have an idea and write it down in a book, the book in which you write the idea is covered by copyright protection, but the idea that you actually put in the book is not covered by copyright. However, the idea may be able to be protected with a patent.

Other things that may be copyrighted are public performances, music (the lyrics and underlying musical composition), audio recordings, paintings and photographs. One particular area where copyright may provide some protection for many business owners is for user manuals, instruction guides and/or advertising materials.

Trademarks and Trade Dress

Trademarks and trade dress are used as source identifiers on products and services. This serves as a guarantee to consumers that they're getting a specific good or service from the source that should be producing it. For example, if a consumer buys a Big Mac from any McDonald's, they know that the burger will be made from the same ingredients and be held to the same standard of quality wherever it's purchased. This is because McDonald's is a trademarked brand. Unlike patents or copyrights, trademarks can last forever, as long as the owner of the trademark continues to use the trademark.

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are applied to valuable, confidential information about a product, process, formula, design or compilation of information that an inventor doesn't want others to have. For example, a manufacturer might use a specific process to form a piece of metal, it might use a particular material for a mold to mass-produce parts or a manufacturer may have particular manufacturing tolerances. If the company doesn't want to share its specific process, material or tolerances, it could treat that information as a trade secret to prevent others from using that information. Trade secrets can last as long as the information is held secret. If shared, the information must be shared under a cloak of confidentiality to maintain the protected status of the trade secret.

What's Next?

The intellectual property protections mentioned above also can overlap across products or ideas. For example, one product can be protected by different utility and design patents. Photos of the product, the user's manual and advertising of the product could be protected by copyright. The commercial name or packaging of the product could be protected as a trademark or as trade dress. Finally, methods of using the product, making the product or dimensional tolerances may be covered as trade secret. In general, intellectual property can be used to protect the large investment of time and capital needed to develop and produce new, original products and services.

So now the question becomes: What IP protections are in place for your proprietary products and/or services? And what recourse do you have if you know or suspect that someone has stolen your intellectual property? These are all valid questions that an experienced intellectual property attorney can help answer for you. But don't wait to find solutions – exploring your options and securing protection today can save a large amount of money and time later on.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.