Four examples of intellectual property

Learn how you can protect your business against intellectual property theft.

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  • Four examples of intellectual property

    Four examples of intellectual property

    As a business owner, you manage many assets on a daily basis, but you may be overlooking an important one: intellectual property.

    Your intellectual property includes the intangible assets you create for your business, such as names, symbols, and designs.1 And just like tangible possessions, your intellectual property needs to be monitored and protected.

    Here's a breakdown of four common examples of intellectual property and tips on how you can protect these assets. This slideshow focuses on U.S. regulations, but you can learn more about international intellectual property at the World Intellectual Property Organization’s website.


    "Intellectual Property as a Business Asset." World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

  • 1. Trademarks

    1. Trademarks

    Trademarks are the items that differentiate your brand from others in your industry. They must be distinctive and used in commerce to sell or promote a product or service.1

    Examples: Words, symbols, names, colors, or sounds that identify where your goods and services come from.

    How to protect them: Trademarks may be registered with the federal government or your state government. Federal trademarks protect your rights throughout the U.S., while state trademarks protect your rights only within the state's territory.2

    While you're not required to register a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to claim your brand name or logo nationally, it can make it easier to challenge anyone who infringes on your claim.3

    Federal trademarks last as long as you use them in business, and they're always protected against infringement. Trademark registration generally costs between $225 and $325 (not including lawyers' fees).4 To see if your desired trademark is available, you can begin searching with the Trademark Electronic Search System database. A trademark lawyer can help you do a more detailed search to assess the availability of your desired trademark. If you decide you only need statewide trademark protection, contact your state trademark authority.


    "Trademark FAQs." United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

    "Fact Sheets: Selecting and Registering a Trademark." International Trademark Association. (July 2014)

    "Filing Your Application Online." USPTO.

    "Reduced Fees and TEAS Application Filing Options." USPTO.

  • 2. Copyrights

    2. Copyrights

    A copyright grants legal rights to anything you create that expresses or embodies an idea. It gives you exclusive rights to copy, distribute, reproduce, display, and license the work.


    • Software

    • Architectural designs

    • Graphic arts

    • Video and sound recordings

    • Books

    • Databases

    How you can protect them: Like trademarks, you have some rights to your original work without registering for a copyright. However, registering can give you more leverage if you ever need to take an infringer to court. You can also register copyrights for any works made by employees or contractors as part of their employment if you secure ownership in writing.

    A copyright empowers you to profit off your creative assets. You can sell copies of your copyrighted assets and lease them in exchange for license fees and royalties.

    A new copyright typically lasts 70 years after the death of the creator.2 You can file to register a copyright with the United States Copyright Office. The current online application fee is $35 to $55.3


    "Copyright." Cornell University Law School.

    "What is copyright?" World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

    "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States." Cornell University Copyright Information Center. (2015)

    "Fees." United States Copyright Office. (2014)

  • 3. Patents

    3. Patents

    Patents are granted for new, useful inventions, and they will give you the right to prevent others from making, using, or selling your invention.1


    • Utility patents: For tangible inventions, such as machines, devices, and composite materials, as well as new and useful processes

    • Design patents: For the ornamental designs on manufactured products

    • Plant patents: For new varieties of plants

    How you can protect them: Patents can be filed with the USPTO and generally last for 20 years.1 They require a nonrefundable filing fee, along with issue, service, and maintenance fees. This can add up to thousands of dollars, but some small businesses qualify for discounts.2

    Use the USPTO database to research existing patents to make sure you don’t file a redundant request and to determine whether your invention would be considered an infringement. Hiring a patent lawyer can also help you do a more thorough search to determine the availability of patent protection for your invention.


    "General Information Concerning Patents." USPTO. (2014)

    "International Patent Protections for Small Businesses." USPTO. (2012)

  • 4. Trade secrets

    4. Trade secrets

    A trade secret is a piece of confidential business information that gives you an advantage over your competitors.1

    Examples: Formulas, patterns, techniques, or processes that are not known or readily attainable by others.

    How you can protect them: Though trade secrets cannot be registered, there are other ways to protect them. "Business owners should actually keep the trade secret a secret. You'd be surprised at how often people fail at that," says Coco Soodek, lawyer and president of Profit and Laws, Inc.

    Create a policy that explains who can access your trade secrets and how they're protected. Have new employees sign nondisclosure agreements before granting them access to secrets, and keep staff up-to-date on your policies with yearly training. You can take legal action against those who misappropriate your trade secrets, but you must be able to prove the secret was obtained through illegal means.2


    "Trade secret." Cornell University Law School.

    "What to do if an NDA is violated." NDAs for Free.

  • Including intellectual property in your business plan

    Including intellectual property in your business plan

    Intellectual property rights can help you establish your brand identity, profit off your unique assets, and prevent others from using your creations.

    When creating a business plan, it's important to consider which assets need to be protected. Budget for the time and money you'll need to properly secure the rights to your creations, and outline how you plan to protect your intellectual assets.

Published: April 24, 2015
Apply Your New Knowledge

Answer these quick questions to move on to the next topic in the Business Plan Center.

1. Do you know which assets make up your intellectual property?
2. Do you need to file for any trademarks, copyrights, or patents?
3. Has another business ever infringed on your intellectual property rights?