Brilliant Idea? How to Protect It

Brilliant Idea? How to Protect It

by Bilal Kaiser, December 2009

In the 1950's, Bette Nesmith Graham, mother of the Monkees' Michael Nesmith, came up with an ingenious new product that covered up mistakes she made on a typewriter. Her homegrown corrective fluid eventually became known as Liquid Paper, and was sold to Gillette for more than $45 million in 1979.

Iconic products often start in a garage or homemade lab. If you have an exciting new concept you want to introduce to the world, consider protecting it before you launch. In the US, there are several different types of intellectual property protections that cover inventions, brand names and logos, and original creative works. The protections are patents, trademarks, and copyrights, respectively. Let's look at them in that order:


According to the US Copyright Office, copyright protection is grounded in the US Constitution and covers "original works of authorship." This can include written works (such as novels or plays), films, songs, paintings, photographs and more. However, a copyright does not protect your ideas alone—it protects your particular expression of those ideas. In other words: your idea for a great book is not protectible, but any writing you do using that great idea is. To register a copyright, one applies to the US Copyright Office either directly or through a service like LegalZoom. Federal registration provides valuable benefits to copyright holders, including the right to sue infringers in federal court and seek statutory damages, and to stop infringing goods from entering the country.


Trademarks are brand names, slogans, logos and other means used by businesses to differentiate their goods and services from those of their competitors. Trademarks protect not only the identities and reputations of the businesses using them, but also protect consumers against confusion when choosing between products or services. To register a trademark with the federal government, one applies to the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO). Un-registered trademarks are recognizable by their use of “TM” or “SM,” while federally registered marks are able to use the distinctive “®” denoting federal protection. As with copyrights, federal registration provides trademark owners with a wide range of important benefits, like the ability to sue infringers in federal court and stop infringing imports.


A patent is protection for an invention. Getting a patent for your invention is a smart of way of discouraging others from making, using, or selling your work. You may also use a US patent to stop infringing imports from entering the US.

The US Patent and Trademark Office registers trademarks and patents.

Your original idea was brilliant, and now you're ready to tell the world. Here's another brilliant idea: protect yourself.

For more information, please visit:

US Copyright Office

United States Patent and Trademark Office

This article was originally published in January, 2010 and updated September, 2011.