One asset that business owners often overlook (and undervalue) is the company’s intellectual property (IP). The World Intellectual Property Organization defines IP as creations of the mind — inventions, literary and artistic works, symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce. The law recognizes four categories of intellectual property. We’ll spend some time with each of these in future posts, but here’s a quick overview to get started:
Patents protect inventions such as machines or processes. If properly registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office, patents provide inventors with an exclusive right to manufacture and market their invention. Federal patent protection lasts up to 20 years.
A trademark is a name, phrase, sound, or symbol used in connection with services or products. Think of Nike’s swoop or the phrase “Just do it.” Federal trademark protection lasts for 10 years after registration and can be renewed “in perpetuity.” Trademarks can also be established without formal registration. If a company creates a symbol or name it wishes to use exclusively, it can simply attach the TM symbol to identify and protect the mark under common law; however, it is easier (more cost-effective) to enforce federally protected trademarks in court).
Copyright laws protect written or artistic compositions such as books, poems, songs, or movies. A copyright protects the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself. The owner of a copyrighted work has the right to reproduce, sell, perform, or display the work to the public. An author can have a common law copyright without federal registration, but cannot sue for copyright infringement of an unregistered copyright. A copyright lasts for the life of the author plus another 50 years.
Trade secrets include formulas, patterns, devices, or compilations of data that give a competitive advantage in business. Unlike the first three categories, trade secrets are governed by state law. To protect the secret, a business must prove that it adds value to the company and that appropriate measures have been taken within the company to safeguard the secret.