Intellectual property law protects the kind of property that results from the efforts of using your mind and your thoughts, such as songs, inventions, literature, and advertising slogans. Since it is created out of your intellectual activity, it is called intellectual property.
There are generally four categories of intellectual property: copyright, trademark, patent, and trade secret. Federal law governs copyrights and patents, while state law governs trade secrets. Trademarks are governed by federal law and state law.
A copyright protects an original work of art or literature, and can include many things like books, movies, music, photographs, and even computer software. You can register your copyright with the United States Copyright Office to obtain certain benefits, but it is not required. Copyright protection automatically exists the moment your work is placed in a fixed form.
A trademark is a word, name, or symbol used to identify your goods or services, setting them apart and letting the world know you are the source of those goods or services. Although you do not have to register your trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), registration provides valuable benefits. Trademark protection exists when you start to use your specific mark.
A patent is a grant from the government that permits you to exclude others from making, using, selling or importing an invention. Only the USPTO can issue a patent.
A trade secret is any valuable information, such as a formula, pattern, or list, used in your business, which gives you an advantage over your competitors. You do not register a trade secret. To claim that certain information is a trade secret, you must have made reasonable efforts to protect the secrecy of the information.
Sometimes, the various intellectual property rights overlap. For instance, computer programs may be protected under copyright law or patent law, but may also be a trade secret and have trademark protection for the program’s name. The recipe for a famous food product may be a trade secret, while the brand name may be a trademark.
If someone wrongfully uses your intellectual property, you can file a lawsuit and ask the court to stop them from using your property. Additionally, you may be able to recover any damages or losses you suffered, and may even be able to get some of the profits they made using your intellectual property.
Legal Editors: Lawrence Goodwin and Dayrel Sewell, July 2016 (updated December 2018)
Changes may occur in this area of law. The information provided is brought to you as a public service with the help and assistance of volunteer legal editors, and is intended to help you better understand the law in general. It is not intended to be legal advice regarding your particular problem or to substitute for the advice of a lawyer.