An overview of intellectual property rights

Some of the world's most valuable property is intellectual property—but it can become worthless if you don't know how to protect it.

by Joe Runge, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  3min read

We are living in a golden age of intellectual property (IP) rights. IP is an essential asset to the world's most valuable companies. If you are a professional, you should be sure to understand the kinds of IP protection and your rights.

Here, get to know the four essential types of IP rights.

An Overview of Intellectual Property Rights

1. Trade secrets

A secret is the fundamental form of IP right. There is nothing safer than a secret you keep from the world. It is a powerful proxy to what IP protection intends to create—exclusivity for your ideas. Appropriate IP protection allows you to share that secret with the world.

Should your product have a secret formula or be made by a secret process, you can use the law to help keep those elements secret. A trade secret requires careful control and management: You must demonstrate the secret is under lock and key. Maintain that protection, and the courts will help you or your business enforce the contracts and trade practices to keep that secret.

Other IP rights are intended to give alternatives to secrets. A great example is a patent.

2. Patents

A patent grants an inventor exclusive rights to an invention for a limited period of time. In return, the inventor must write a technical description of the invention. It must be written in a way that other similarly skilled professionals could recreate it. A patent the opposite of a secret. It encourages inventors to publicize their inventions in return for the exclusive rights to make, use, or sell the invention.

Patents are complex technical documents that require significant effort to draft and file. The inventor must negotiate with the patent office and argue that the invention is something novel.

Patents clearly claim, in precise language, what the inventor owns. Compare that with something a bit more abstract and artistic, like a copyright.

3. Copyright

A patent describes technical innovation, while a copyright covers creative expressionCopyright infringement may hinge on the similarity of a chord progression or the overlapping elements of a character. Copyright, by its very nature, is a more abstract legal right.

An author owns the rights to their works the moment they spring from the pen. Those rights cover an essay's words or the form of a drawing as the author created them. They also extend to variations, depending on the underlying creativity of the work. If you're writing directions on how to shampoo your hair, then a small change to the directions may be sufficient to get around a copyright. For a genre-defining one-act play, even changing the characters and setting may not be enough to get around a copyright.

Copyright has to be for an abstract work. Trademark rights, however, can get even more abstract.

4. Trademark

It can be tricky to put your finger on what, exactly, trademarks protect. They don't protect the name or the design of the logo. They protect what that logo represents. When you walk into a Starbucks, you have a specific expectation. The fact that you know the Starbucks name, recognize its brand, and understand the products it sells did not happen by accident. The business built that brand and invested money to create the customer relationship.

How much of the relationship can competitors copy? Trademark litigation often hinges on research among customers about confusion as to the source of goods. Do all green-aproned baristas serve Starbucks? How about a coffee shop decorated with photos of Pike's Place Market?

Trademarks, like all IP rights, encourage creativity by providing creators with exclusive rights to their creations. The trick is knowing which kind of IP protection grants the rights you need and where those rights end.

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Joe Runge, Esq.

About the Author

Joe Runge, Esq.

Joe Runge graduated from the University of Iowa with a Juris doctorate and a master of science in molecular evolution. H… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.