An area of law that small-business owners and entrepreneurs need to be familiar with is intellectual property, which is important to all businesses and entrepreneurs. It can be a very valuable part of any portfolio if properly maintained. Intellectual property covers patents, trademarks, copyrights and to some extent trade secrets. Patents, trademarks and copyrights are all governed by federal statutes. Trademarks and copyrights will also have some state protections. Trade secrets are governed by state laws.
Patents protect inventions and improvements to existing inventions.
Trademarks are brand names and/or designs that are applied to products or used in connection with services. A trademark clearly identifies your product as unique. It might be a single word or combination of words, a symbol, a logo, a design or even a color. Because people make buying decisions based on a trademark, it can be an infinitely valuable business asset. Companies like McDonald’s� or Kimberly Clark (Kleenex� brand tissues) will go to any lengths to protect their trademarks.
Copyrights cover literary, artistic and musical works. Copyrights are grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. A copyright protects creators of original works in the categories of literature, drama, music and artistic expression. A copyright is meant to keep others from copying the work, distributing it, displaying it or performing it without permission.
Trade secrets are proprietary information. This may include a confidential formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique or process. It is not common knowledge, but it is not protected by a patent.
Patents and trademarks are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Copyrights are registered with the Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress.
The next several posts will discuss specific types of intellectual property.