If you own a business or are thinking about starting a new business, you should familiarize yourself with what is known as intellectual property. Intellectual property is a phrase used to describe certain legal rights that people may hold over “creations of the mind,” such as works of art, writing, inventions, designs, ideas, music, or choreography. There are four main types of intellectual property — copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and trademarks.
A copyright is a form in intellectual property that protects the original authors of both published and unpublished creations. The rights of authorship for these works remain solely the possessions of the originator for a specified period of time under copyright law. Once the time period has elapsed, then these works are open to others for reproduction and republication.
Copyrights are registered through the U.S. Copyright Office. Copyrights filed in or after 1978 will last for the entirety of the author’s life plus 70 years after his or her death.
Patents are legal property rights applied to inventions (as opposed to works of any kind of art or literacy), and they must be distributed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Typically, patents apply to such items as processes, machines, manufacturing designs, biological discoveries, or “compositions of matter.”
Like copyrights, patents are available to the inventors for only a certain period of time before they expire. Patents generally last for 20 years after the date on which the patent application is filed.
Trade secrets are practices, designs, formulas, processes, recipes, or ideas used by a company that allows it to gain leverage in its industry. Typically, trade secrets are kept hidden by one’s own means, as opposed to being protected through government policies such as patents or copyrights. An example of self-protection commonly used with trade secrets is locking the pertinent information away in a bank vault. Since trade secrets lack legal protection, once they are leaked to the general public, they are available for use by anyone.
Trademarks include any words, phrases, symbols, logos, designs, or devices that are used in association with a particular brand or good in order to distinguish it from other products of that industry. Trademarks are used for identification purposes, and are legally protected once they have been registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
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