Whether you’re working within a business unit that turns out product and service ideas regularly or you came up with a great idea on your own that you are thinking about commercializing, you might be curious how to best prevent others from copying your idea or using it without your authorization. In lawyer speak, that means you want to know what type of intellectual property might apply to your idea.
While there are, worldwide, probably a dozen or more specific types of intellectual property, for the most part business concepts fall into one of four IP types: a) Patent; b) Copyright; c) Trademark; or d) Trade Secret.
In the business world, it is common to talk about intellectual property in a very broad sense. You will hear that “this company has strong IP” or “the IP goes along with this acquisition.” While there is nothing wrong with grouping different types of IP holdings into one overall name, it is almost always a good idea to drill down one more level and ask: What is that IP, exactly? Does this company own what it thinks it owns? If there are copyrights or trademarks as part of the IP, are they registered? If patents are involved, are they issued patents or filed applications? All of these things will have an impact on the actual value and usefulness of the IP.
If an idea, product, process, logo, business plan, video, jingle, computer program, or other creation doesn’t fall into one of those four boxes, it probably will not have any intellectual property status. Information may be important, and even critical to a company (for example, know-how or an understanding of the way things are best done within a business), but it may not fall into any of the four IP categories. That’s OK; it just means that a court won’t help you if such information is disclosed or copied.
It’s possible for some works to belong in two boxes at the same time. For example, software code is almost always copyrighted, and sometimes a solution including software can also be patented. A logo may be creative enough for copyright protection, and it could also be the subject matter of a trademark registration. A trade secret, though, would never be the same subject matter as a patent or trademark, because patents and trademarks are openly disclosed while a trade secret is, well, secret.
The good news (if you’re the one wanting to protect something) is that almost any new product, service, design, logo, or trade name will fall into at least one of those four boxes. In coming pieces, we’ll go into the basics of each of these types of intellectual property.
And finally, as a quick note, we’re separating business ideas in these pieces from artistic works that are generally covered by copyright law. While general principles apply across the board, every field of artistic creation (film, music, books, stage performances, photographs and paintings, etc.) has its own set of industry practices and expectations. If these topics are important to you—that is, if you create these types of works or work closely with people who do—it is a very good idea to work with a lawyer who has experience in that specific field.
This is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. If you have questions about any of these topics, you should consult with a lawyer.