It’s a long road to go from a spark of inspiration to a successful and profitable business. Legal protection of your innovative product can definitely help. The problem, of course, is that having a good 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, how can you get IP to work for you? 

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 or )
  2. Articles of manufacture (any object made by hand or machine)
  3. Processes (a method of doing something, including 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 furniture design. You’ve seen the results of some famous design patents before–the Statue of Liberty, for instance, the original Coca-Cola bottle, or the iPhone home button.

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


A copyright protects an original work of authorship, fixed in a tangible medium, and provides only the owner the right to reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works, publicly perform the work, and publicly display the work.   That means a copyright owner can prevent their original creative work from being duplicated without authorization.

For technology companies, copyright registrations can be a quick and effective way of protecting software code.  You can also protect the copy on your website, instruction book, etc. by using appropriate markings.

Trade Secret

A trade secret is essentially any corporate information that gives the company an economic and/or competitive advantage over others.  In the US, a trade secret is defined as information that is:

  1. Valuable;
  2. Secret; and
  3. Protected

Some categories of trade secrets include:

  • Customer information (e.g., contact lists)
  • Personnel information (e.g., salaries and personal information)
  • Financial information (e.g., revenue projections, financial reports)
  • Business and marketing plans
  • Software, formulas, and algorithms
  • Know-how
  • Product specifications (e.g., bill of materials, internal manuals)
  • Manufacturing processes
  • Quality assurance methods

While not all corporate information is a trade secret, any corporate information that can have serious reputational, financial, and legal implications if accessed by someone outside of the company would be considered a trade secret.

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.