What is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property is a broad term used to describe all creative, intangible work. This type of work can roughly be divided into two categories: literary and artistic works, and industrial property. In the United States, literary and artistic works are protected through laws regarding copyright. Different forms of industrial property are protected through patents, trademarks, and state laws regarding trade secrets.

Generally, ideas, facts, and mathematical concepts are not understood as falling under either category. This means that these types of information are not covered by United States intellectual property law.

You can work with an intellectual property attorney to determine the category of your type of work. Your attorney can advise you which steps to take to best protect your information. It is important to consult an attorney who can help you understand how to protect your work in other countries other than the United States. Protections granted in the United States only occasionally extend into other countries.

In the United States, patents cover inventions. Those who wish to register a patent must apply to the United States Trademark and Patent Office (USTPO). Typically, a patent must be applied for in each country where the inventor is seeking protection for the invention. Industrial design rights may fall under the category of patents if the design is technical, trade dress if the design identifies the product source, and copyrights if the design is purely artistic. Trademarks cover distinguishing information for a product, such as a combination of colors, a symbol, or a sound. The United States does not require registration for trademarks, but offers benefits to registering trademarks with the USTPO.

Trade secrets cover a variety of items used to make a product or process unique, such as a formula, pattern, or process. Trade secrets are protected through confidentiality contracts such as non-compete or non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) between employers and employees. Many U.S. states also protect trade secrets under state laws.

Copyrights cover literary and artistic works such as movies, novels, poetry, sculpture, photography, computer software, and architecture. Copyrights need not be registered to be valid, but copyright owner gets many advantages in proving his case and collecting damages if he registers his/her work with the United States Copyright Office (USCO). If a work is copyrighted in the United States, the protection for the copyright extends into countries with which the United States has copyright agreements.

Consider consulting the websites of the USTPO and USCO, as well as their publications online, to learn more about your rights and protections for your creative works.