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The Four Main Types of Intellectual Property

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Without a doubt, one of the most valuable assets to most small businesses is their intellectual property. Both the IP they own and the IP they will create for their clients.

This post will explore the four main types of intellectual property.


When you create art, music, writings, computer code, and similar works, you can use copyright to prevent other people from copying your work without your permission. Here are the core elements of copyright law:

  • Protects: Artistic works, literary works, computer code, etc.
  • Vesting: Upon the creation of an original work of authorship
  • Registration: Not required, but registration with the Copyright Office is recommended
  • Ownership: Usually in the creator unless the work is a “work made for hire” or transfer
  • Rights: Exclusive Right to Reproduce, Distribute, Create Derivative Works, Public Display/Perform
  • Term: Usually life of author plus 70 years
  • Infringement: Unauthorized exercise of the above rights (with identical copy or a substantially similar copy)

Learn more:


When you are the first to use a name, slogan, logo, or other trademark in commerce to identify you as the source of a particular good or service, you can use trademark law to prevent others from using your trademark or any mark confusingly similar to your trademark if that use might cause consumer confusion. Here are the core elements of trademark law:

Trademark law in a nutshell:

  • Protects: Names, logos, slogans, colors, scents, etc.
  • Vesting: Upon use in interstate commerce
  • Registration: Not required, but registration with the USPTO is recommended 
  • Ownership: First to use in specific geographic area
  • Rights: Right to prohibit others from using your mark (or a confusingly similar mark) with respect to specific goods/services
  • Term: As long as used in interstate commerce and not abandoned
  • Infringement: Unauthorized use of a protected mark that is likely to cause consumer confusion

Learn more:

Trade Secrets

When running your business you’ll probably have information that is valuable to your business due to its confidential status. You can protect that information using Non-Disclosure Agreements but you can also use state-specific (and now federal) trade secret laws to prevent the unauthorized acquisition, use, and disclosure, of that information. Here are the core elements of trade secret law:

  • Protects: Information which (1) a party reasonably attempts to maintain as confidential; and (2) is economically valuable due to its confidential nature.
  • Types: Practically all kinds of information – technical data, non-technical data, formulas, programs, methods, lists, presentations, and more.
  • Vesting: A party gains trade secret rights as soon as they take reasonable steps to maintain the confidentiality of the information.
  • Registration: Trade secrets can’t be registered.
  • Term: Trade secret protection lasts for as long as you maintain the confidentiality of the information.
  • Rights: You can use trade secret laws to prevent misappropriation of your trade secrets.
  • Misappropriation: To misappropriate a trade secret merely means to acquire, use, or disclose, the trade secrets of another party without their authorization.

Learn more:


If you’ve invented a new and useful tool, machine, process, or something similar, you can seek a patent from the United States Patent and Trademark Office. If awarded, you can use that patent to prevent others from using or selling your invention. Here are the core elements of patent law:

  • Protects: Inventions (but not discoveries), machines, processes, etc.
  • Types: Utility, Design, Plant
  • Vesting: First person to file for protection of patentable subject matter who is also an inventor
  • Registration: Must be (1) Useful (“utility”); (2) New (“novelty”); and (3) Not Obvious
  • Term: Generally 20 years
  • Rights: Right to prohibit others from making, selling, or using that to which you have a patent
  • Infringement: Unauthorized making, selling, or using, a patented subject matter

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Related Guides

There’s so much more to learn! Here are a few related guides you should read:

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