Patents, copyrights, trademarks — oh my! You might know that intellectual property is important in the modern business environment, but if you are new to entrepreneurship or business leadership, you might need some help deciphering the wild world of IP. Here are a few key IP concepts you need to know as you build and grow a business.
What Is the Purpose of a Patent?
The gold standard for protecting intellectual property, patents are exclusive rights granted to inventors. Inventions are products or processes that are totally unique; inventions are supposed to be put into practice, to improve life in some small or significant way, and thus, they have specific designs that inventors can protect by filing for patents. There are various concepts that cannot be patented, like disembodied ideas, which might include concepts, discoveries, scientific principles or abstract theorems, as well as medical treatments, life forms or any item of purely intellectual or aesthetic significance.
It is important to note that patents are not foolproof. A patent does not guarantee its owner the right to practice the invention; rather, it merely ensures that the owner can stop others from practicing the invention — to include making, using, selling or importing the invention. What’s more, a successfully filed patent can still be subject to other, prior patents, which might block all or part of it. Thus, those interested in acquiring a patent must perform thorough research to understand the patent landscape surrounding their invention before filing.
Inventors — or the organization that claims responsibility for an invention — file for a patent with an appropriate government agency; in the U.S., that agency is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A patent application involves submitting evidence of the invention process, creating exhaustive design plans of the invention and describing the potential of the invention. The objective of the patent process is to demonstrate that the invention to be patented fits the three primary criteria for patenting. The invention must be:
- Novel — the first in the world to have such a design
- Non-obvious — showing ingenuity such that someone skilled in that area would not find it evident
- Useful — being functional and operative.
The process of acquiring a patent can be long and arduous, and most inventors require the assistance of a patent lawyer to ensure that documents are completed properly as to achieve sufficient protection.
Understanding Trademarks and Copyrights
There are many business assets that are considered intellectual property but that do not qualify for protection under the patent system. Fortunately, the most prominent among these assets can still be protected under other intellectual property law, such as trademarks and copyrights.
Many business leaders are confused regarding copyright vs trademark — and for good reason. Unlike patents, both copyrights and trademarks are immediately applied to the assets they protect, even if the owner does not register their assets for protection. What’s more, both copyrights and trademarks seem to apply to creative works, though in truth, the details of these creative works serve to differentiate these two classes of IP.
Trademarks serve to distinguish one company’s goods and services from another. A company name is the most obvious example of a trademark, though logos, slogans and even fonts and color schemes can be considered trademarks if they are unique and prominent enough. As soon as a business puts its trademark into use, it automatically receives protection, and protection over trademarks extends as long as those trademarks are used in commerce. Still, it is wise for business owners to register their trademarks to avoid any frustrating legal battles in the future.
Copyrights, meanwhile, protect creative works from plagiarism by other creators. Literary works, musical works, artistic works and dramatic works are all protected by copyrights, as are computer software, source code and user interface designs. Like trademarks, copyrights are immediately applied to creative works, but registration can strengthen the legal protections they provide. Unlike trademarks, copyrights do expire, with the general rule that coverage of a copyright ends 70 years after the author’s death.
A final class of IP, and one that is often overlooked, is trade secrets. Trade secrets comprise business information that provide a company with a competitive edge, which may involve sales methods, consumer profiles, advertising strategies, social media connections, chemical formulas, manufacturing processes and more. As long as a trade secret is kept secret by the company, it is subject to legal protections and cannot be poached by competing businesses.
You want your business to survive and thrive, and in this day and age, that means relying on a good amount of IP. With this IP primer in mind, you can build a stronger, smarter business that is better protected in your marketplace.