How to Protect Your Intellectual Property

Learn how to protect your intellectual property rights—from copyrights to patents.

by Edward A. Haman, J.D.
updated August 16, 2021 ·  4min read

Intellectual property rights are the rights you have to anything you create as a result of your original ideas. If your ideas and creations have economic value, you will want to protect your intellectual property.

Intellectual property protection is designed to prevent anyone else from taking your idea or creation and profiting from it, unless they obtain your permission.

Exactly how to protect intellectual property depends upon the nature of the intellectual property. It is not always easy to determine the best type of protection. Some intellectual property only requires one type of protection, while others may require two or more methods in order to secure their full economic benefit.

The four primary ways to protect intellectual property are:

  1. Copyrights
  2. Trademarks
  3. Patents
  4. Trade secrets

Each of these methods of protecting your ideas and intellectual property is discussed below.

1. Copyrights

Copyright protection is available for written and artistic works. This includes literary works of fiction and nonfiction, paintings and drawings, sculptures, musical scores and recordings, video recordings, computer code, emails you write, and dance choreography.

A copyright prevents others from copying, or duplicating, your work unless they have your permission. If someone illegally uses your work, you can bring a lawsuit against the infringing party. The duration of copyright protection is the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years.

A work is copyrighted as soon as it is created. Two ways to help secure your copyright are to place a copyright notice on all copies of the work, and to register your copyright. Registration is not required, but if someone illegally copies your work, you may have a more difficult time proving your copyright in court if it is not registered. Copyrights may be registered with the United States Copyright Office.

2. Trademarks

Trademark protection applies to a word, phrase, picture, logo, or combination of these that identifies the source of goods. In essence, it is the mark that uniquely identifies a company. If services are being sold instead of goods, it is known as a service mark. Trademarks and service marks are also sometimes referred to as trade names.

As with a copyright, a trademark is not required to be registered. However, to enforce your trademark in court, you need to prove that you were the first to use the trademark and that you have used it openly and frequently in marketing your goods or services. Nationwide protection of a trademark can be obtained by registering the mark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Many states also offer trademark protection, but the mark will only be protected from unauthorized use in the state where it is registered.

Trademark protection prevents others from using the mark, or a similar mark that is likely to be confused with your mark. Applying for a trademark requires stating the type, or class, of business in which the mark will be used. Protection typically only prevents others in the same class of business from using the mark. Also, to maintain a registered trademark, every 10 years you will need to file proof that you are still using the mark.

3. Patents

Patent protection is available for inventions. The most clearly understood example is some type of new machine, but patents can also exist for new materials, new processes, or new combinations or modifications of existing patents.

These are called utility patents and include patents on computer program code and algorithms. Design patents address the artistic shape or ornamentation of functional items (such as the unique shape of a piece of furniture), and plant patents cover certain types of new plant varieties created by breeders.

Apply for a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. That office administers numerous restrictions on what can, and can't, be patented, which vary depending upon the type of patent sought. Generally, patents are protected for a period of 20 years.

4. Trade Secrets

Keeping a trade secret is the least secure way of protecting intellectual property, but sometimes it works. The important concept here is the word “secret." It is simply the idea that your creation cannot be easily figured out by others, and you can keep control over its economic value as long as you don't tell anyone the details.

If you file for a patent, you will need to disclose the details of your invention in the application process and it will no longer be a secret. Similarly, if you register computer code as a copyright, you will also need to publicly disclose it.

Determining the best way to protect intellectual property can be confusing and complex. This is especially true in highly technical areas such as computer algorithms. Someone who is writing a magazine article may simply need to include a copyright notice on the manuscript. The author of a novel will usually want to register the work.

On the other hand, someone engaging in the business of writing and marketing new computer programs may need to copyright and patent the code and algorithms, as well as register a trademark for marketing them.

An intellectual property attorney can help ensure that the best possible protection is secured for your work.

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Edward A. Haman, J.D.

About the Author

Edward A. Haman, J.D.

Edward A. Haman is a freelance writer, who is the author of numerous self-help legal books. He has practiced law in Hawa… 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.