There is a lot of difference between a good hardware idea and a successful and profitable business. In order to get there, you’ll need more than just an innovative product. You’ll need legal protection to back it up.

The problem, of course, is that having an idea isn’t enough to qualify for legal protection. You have to prove that you have valid intellectual property. What is intellectual property? And more importantly, what counts as intellectual property? Here’s a closer look at the fundamental definition and what role it can play in the long-term health and growth of your business.

What is Intellectual Property?

When we hear the word “property,” many people tend to think of something concrete like land or a house or a car. Intellectual property can be something concrete, too but at the heart of it intellectual property is about the intangible.

Basically, intellectual property refers to creations of the mind–your ideas. These could be inventions, artistic creations, even symbols and designs. But it’s not simply a matter of having an idea. People have ideas all the time. What differentiates intellectual property is that it is legally protected from unauthorized use by others, and ownership of intellectual property inherently creates a monopoly on the protected property.

Types of Intellectual Property

It is important to remember, however, that intellectual property is merely an umbrella term. To understand what counts as intellectual property, you have to understand the different types of intellectual property, as they each address different categories of legal protection. They also come with different legal standards and rules.


A trademark is a word, symbol, phrase, design, or combination of those elements which serve to identify and distinguish one party’s goods from another. Trademarks are exclusively assigned to a company, meaning that no other company may copy or use the trademark.

Common examples of trademarks include:

  • Brand names, like McDonald’s
  • Product names, like iPhone
  • Slogans, like Capital One’s “What’s in your wallet?”
  • Company logos, like the NBC peacock logo
  • Sounds, like the Yahoo! yodel
  • Fictional characters, like the Pink Panther or the Geico gecko
  • Combination marks, like the Starbucks coffee emblem
  • Product shapes, like the shape of an iPhone
  • Words in a stylized font, like the Coca-Cola logo

The easiest way to think of trademarked intellectual property is brand identification.


A patent is limited duration property protection relating to an invention, granted in exchange for the disclosure of an invention. There are three types of patents:

  1. Utility patent (for a novel and non-obvious invention)
  2. Design patent (for the design of a product)
  3. Plant patent (for novel, non-obvious, asexually reproducible plants)

Patents are a bit trickier to offer examples for because they’re more diverse than trademarks. The easiest way to understand it is by looking at each patent type individually.

Utility patents, also known as “patents for invention”, are some of the most common patents issued by USPTO–and the most difficult to acquire. They refer to four broad categories of inventions:

  1. Machines (like an engine)
  2. Articles of manufacture (like broomsticks)
  3. Processes (like software or business processes)
  4. Compositions of matter (like pharmaceuticals)

A design patent is a bit more like a trademark in that it covers the unique visual qualities of an item that make it identifiable. This could be anything from packaging to computer icons to furniture design. You’ve seen the results of some famous design patents before–the Statue of Liberty, for instance, or the original Coca-Cola bottle.

A plant patent is the easiest to understand because it’s the narrowest. It protects new and unique characteristics of a plant to prevent it from being copied or sold. Utility patents cover certain plants, seeds, or plant reproduction processes, but otherwise, if it’s related to a plant, it usually involves a plant patent.


Then there are copyrights, which are the simplest of the bunch. A copyright does not cover an item per se, but rather the legal right of the owner to the intellectual property–the “right to copy” which the owner holds and no one else. Because of this, copyright protects original materials from unauthorized duplication.

It does not protect ideas, theories, or concepts. In order to be copyrighted, something must be written down. A musical composition, for example, cannot be copyrighted until it is transcribed as a written score.

In order to get a copyright, you need to prove you have an original creation that required significant mental activity to create. Common examples of copyrights include novels, film, music lyrics and composition, art, poetry, computer software, original architectural designs, graphic designs, and website content.

Protecting your intellectual property starts with understanding what to protect. Ready to turn your intellectual property into your greatest asset? Click here to get started.