Legal and Regulations

Understanding intellectual property

Explore these examples of intellectual property to determine if your business is protected.

Published: June 11, 2015
Updated: February 19, 2017

Your business might hold mostly tangible assets, such as equipment and real estate, but intangible business assets — known as intellectual property — are just as important and valuable in their own way.

There are four main types of intellectual property, and each is very different.

1. Trademarks

A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, or design that identifies a product or service, and differentiates it from competitors. Your logo, business name, or tagline can be trademarks. A trademarked item helps to establish your business' or product's reputation.

In the U.S., you can acquire rights to a trademark by using it in commerce. While you are not required to do so, if you register a trademark at the federal level you gain additional rights against parties that may infringe upon your mark, as well as more protection from claims of infringement by others. You also get the right to use the "R in a circle" symbol, which signifies a registered trademark and might help deter infringements.

To file a trademark, start by searching the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website to make sure your mark is not being used by another business.

Filing a trademark application with the USPTO can cost about $325 and takes six to 12 months. While it's possible to do it on your own, many small businesses should consider consulting with a trademark attorney. 

2. Copyrights

A copyright protects original creative works such as artwork, photographs, books, blog posts, and marketing brochures. A small business also owns copyrights for the work its employees create in the scope of their employment. Copyright notices are often added to web pages and written materials.

Copyright attaches automatically when a work is created. Neither registration nor placing a copyright notice on a work is required, but doing so provides the copyright owner with certain legal advantages if the work is infringed upon and a decision is made to recover damages in court. The cost for filing an application for registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is low: $35 to $65 dollars. Placing a copyright notice on a work is simple and the presence of the copyright notice alone might deter infringement.

In a copyright notice, include the word "copyright," the "C in a circle" mark, the date published, and the creator's name; for example: Copyright © 2014 Creator’s name.

3. Patents

A patent protects an invention from being made, used, or sold in the U.S. without permission of the inventor. Patent-protected inventions can include machines, manufactured articles, chemical mixtures, and processes. A patent can generally provide protection for 20 years.

U.S. patents protect those who are first to file, not first to invent. If you file for and receive a patent, the invention is publicly disclosed at that point. However, one of the conditions of getting a patent is that the invention was not available to the public before filing.

Filing an application for a patent varies in price. The USPTO lists filing fees on its site. Protecting a patent can involve significant legal strategy and skill in drafting the patent application. For this reason, many small business owners consult a patent attorney.

4. Trade secrets

A trade secret is information valuable to your business and unavailable to the public or your competitors, except by illegal means. Trade secrets can include a chemical formula, marketing strategy, manufacturing technique, or product recipe.

The first thing you must do to protect a trade secret is to keep it secret. If you treat it as non-confidential or make it available to the public, such as by publishing it on your website, you lose trade secret protection.

Require employees to sign non-disclosure agreements to protect your trade secrets. Unlike with trademarks, patents, or copyrights, there is no place to file for trade secret protection with the federal government.

Your intellectual property is at the heart of your competitive advantage and brand value. If it is infringed, your advantage could be diminished, and your intellectual property becomes less valuable. Consult your attorney, and take the right steps to fully protect your trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets — and keep their value high. 

For more resources, visit the Business Plan Center.