Primer on Intellectual Property for Business Owners

What is Intellectual Property and Why it’s Important to Your Business

Types of Intellectual Property

In the United States of America intellectual property protected within these four classes


The U.S Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) defines a patent as “the grant of a property right to the inventor”.  The owner is granted “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling, or importing the invention” covered by the patent.  Computer hardware and physical devices can be patented.  Once an inventor supplies acceptable documentation to the Patent Office and the PTO verifies the invention as original a patent is granted or issued. The term Patent Pending means that an application has been filed, but a patent has yet to be issued. Patents are usually valid for twenty years from the date of application, not granted date.  The rules have changed recently extending the previous valid date of 17 years by 3 years to 20 years. International protection is protected by the 130 countries that have adopted the PCT (Patent Cooperation Treaty)


The United States Patent Office defines a trademark as, “any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used, in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods of one manufacturer or seller from goods manufactured or sold by others.”  Brands of companies, business logos, and names are protected by trademarking. Public Law #105-330 the Trademark Law Treaty Implementation Act, gives some protection internationally for trademarks registers in the United States.

You’ve worked hard to build a name for your business. Protect it.


Copyrights are traditionally used for authors of “original works of authorship”, both published and not published. The actual work but not the idea or subject matter itself is the copyright. The 1909 Copyright Act only protected published works of art, however, in 1976 this requirement was changed and now protection is granted regardless of publishing status. One must register their copyrights at the Copyright Office of the Libary of Congress. Registration is not required for copyright protection, which lasts for the author’s lifetime plus 70 years.

Trade Secrets

Less formal and less structured protection, but actually more important are trade secrets security, the most common form of intellectual property. To qualify as a trade secret, that information must be propriety, yours alone, and be related to business that your company or you does and has exclusive rights. Software code can be protected as trade secrets.

Trade secrets must fulfill these requirements:

  • Unique competitive advantage – Any process or method used to create value in your company that gives you a competitive advantage.
  • Value to Owner – Financial value is inherent due to the advantage the owner receives in the marketplace
  • Confidential in Nature – Owner must be cautious in disclosure and reasonable in its protection.
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