Generally, there are three main forms of intellectual property: trademarks, copyrights, and patents. There is a fourth category of IP law, trade secrets, that is significantly less well developed than the traditional forms. This does not mean trade secrets should be viewed lightly, as they can provide protection to a far broader range of subject matter.
Before moving further, it is helpful to gain a basic understanding of what falls into each category.
Trademarks are words, names, and symbols used to identify goods and services. Company names and logos are the most prevalent forms trademarks. The value of a memorable name and logo cannot be overstated. Companies use their trademarks to form pervasive associations with their products. Just reading the name McDonald’s or picturing the golden arches creates an instant experience in your head. Protecting an entrepreneur’s trademarks helps prevent losing customers and damage to the business’s reputation—likely consequences if another business offers similar products or services while using a similar name or logo.
Copyrights apply to artistic works: books, music, pictures, movies, and even software (to an extent). Copyright is limited to creative expression and does not extend to facts. For individual creators, protecting the rights to their works is protecting their livelihood. Similarly, many entrepreneurs and businesses rely on these works in one way or another. This could be in the form of advertising, or it may even be at the core of the business itself. An understanding of copyright law is essential for any business that creates or uses media.
Patents, in their simplest terms, are useful inventions and innovations. While copyrights focus on artistic value, patent law is rooted in utility. It isn’t difficult to see the multitude of ways a patent can play into an entrepreneur’s success. Constant technological innovation drives many entrepreneurs. On average there are 20 tech companies founder per year that reach $100 million in revenue, in the US alone. Without properly protecting patentable material, companies risk their tremendous growth potential.
Trade Secrets is a blanket category that protects many kinds of ideas outside the three main IP categories.