A Guide to Trademarks, Copyrights, Patents and Trade Secrets

copyrights patents and trade secrets

Protecting your intellectual property (IP) is an important part of business in any industry, and it’s even possible that you’ll need several different types of protection!

The best way to make sure you and your unique ideas are adequately protected (and that infringers are held accountable) is to first understand how they can (and should) be protected. This means knowing the basics of each main area of IP law.

Here is a brief guide to trademarks, copyrights, patents and trade secrets to help get you started on understanding the different areas of IP law and how they can protect you!

What is IP Law?

Intellectual property encompasses all of the different ways original ideas can be expressed and marketed, so IP law makes sure those ideas are protected. Otherwise, they could easily be stolen and entrepreneurship would be incredibly frustrating.

J.D. Houvener, a Houston patent attorney, initially got into the practice because of how much it empowers entrepreneurs:

Inventors are some of the most inspiring and incredible people you’ll meet – but they’d be constantly pushed around if they couldn’t protect their original ideas. That’s why they absolutely must make sure they protect them before trying to go to market and really make their dreams come true.”

Essentially, IP law is what makes infringement more than simply “frowned upon” and gives businesses and individuals the right to hold them legally accountable. In a cutthroat marketplace, it’s absolutely necessary.

There are four main areas of IP law to protect original ideas: trademarks, copyrights, patents and trade secrets. Understanding the gist of these four areas will give you a solid, overall understanding of how to protect every area of your intellectual property and to make sure it is enforced.


The first area of IP law to talk about is trademarks. These cover pretty much all aspects of branding and original ideas attached to that, including names, logos, slogans and more.

The ultimate purpose of trademark protection is to give consumers the ability to discern between products based on reputation and recognition. If they already trust a company, they’ll feel comfortable in continued purchase of their products.

While trademarks can be officially registered (and should be in order to uphold protection and hold infringing parties accountable), they also fall under common law and are protected to a reasonable extent from the first moment they are introduced to the public.


Copyrights are critical for all kinds of creative minds, playing the biggest part in things like protecting your writing, preventing derivative creations of original music and much more. Basically, if it is a form of unique artistic expression, there is likely a way it can be copyrighted.

One of the best parts of copyrights is that they last the entire duration of the creator’s life (and then another seventy years after that). This helps to ease the worries of any creative individual because their original ideas are thoroughly protected so that only they and their immediate successors can have the rights to it.

Like trademarks, copyrights also fall under common law. As soon as an individual can prove that their idea was created in a solid, real manner (such as timestamps on recordings), it is their intellectual property. That said, official registration is required to take infringing parties to court and to really enforce it, so it’s important to take the time to do so anyway.


Patents are where things get serious for entrepreneurs, businesses and inventors. This is because they are the strictest and most official forms of protection and because the patent cost is so high after all is said and done, making it an intense endeavor that inventors have to really prepare for.

Even though costs are higher for patents than any other area of IP protection, they are absolutely necessary for protecting inventions. This is why knowing how to file a patent is critical for any inventor before they can take their idea to market.

Unlike trademarks and copyrights, patents are not protected under common law. This means they must be officially filed, granted and registered with the USPTO for an inventor to legitimately have protected rights to their invention.

The good news is that they are truly worth the fight and the cost. Patents essentially grant the owner exclusive rights (or a temporary monopoly) for up to twenty years depending on the specifics.

This will give the inventor the ability to either develop and profit off their invention as they make a name in the marketplace and gain loyal customers or they can sell it to another company and profit instantly instead (something inventors who don’t want to build a business will do repeatedly).

Trade Secrets

Finally, trade secrets are protection for important and independently valuable information that pertains to the way a business is able to operate and set themselves apart.

This can be something as fun and interesting as a secret formula to something as seemingly mundane as vendor lists. All that matters is that reasonable effort is made to maintain the secret and that it has clear value to the business.

This can also sometimes fall under common law, but it is a little more complicated since the nature of a trade secret is, well, secrecy. It is much harder to prove original ownership of these secrets for that reason, so it is important to go about official protection to make sure any parties who misuse the information are held accountable.

In Summary

Intellectual property is a treasure to any creator, whether they are a techy inventor or a creative musician. This is why a basic understanding of IP law and its ability to keep these ideas safe and secure is so important.

By understanding trademarks, copyrights, patents and trade secrets, it’ll be easier to figure out which areas of IP law are most relevant to you and your ideas. Some people may only need copyright protection while some may only need a patent. Others might need a combination or all of the above!

The most important thing to take away from this is that ultimately you are responsible for taking care of your intellectual property. It is up to you to make sure your ideas are thoroughly, officially protected and that anyone who attempts to steal them is held accountable.

Don’t let someone profit off of your ideas or take credit for your work! Take the necessary steps to protect your ideas today.


Posted by Katherine Lutz

Katherine (Tori) Lutz is a graduate of Florida State University and current student at Columbia University. Professionally, she has experience in the areas of writing, editing and marketing. She is currently living in Brooklyn, New York, and aspires to be a journalist.

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