How to Recognize the Intellectual Property your Business Owns and Grasp the Basics of the IP System

Cynthia Caren Cannady

Written by


Contributor Level 6

Posted over 6 years ago. 4 helpful votes



Know the difference between different types of intellectual property

* A patent is a new and useful idea in principally any field. (e.g. a new product, new functions for an existing product, a new way of building a road, cooling a building, administering a drug, or cutting up fruit). * Industrial design (aka "design patent") protects the shape of a product (e.g. the signature silhouette of the Porsche 911). * A copyright work is an original expression; it does not have to be literary or artistic, and can be technical in nature (e.g. a manual describing how to install a grey water system, or a software program for monitoring and managing geothermal energy). * A trademark is a name of a good, service, or technology (e.g. Coca Cola or LEED) and a service mark is the name of a business (e.g. Heliovolt). A logo can also be a trademark (e.g. the globe symbol Bechtel uses or the Microsoft Windows flag). * A trade secret is confidential information that has economic value (e.g. your customer or vendor list, or a database of test results)


Know some basics about how the IP system works

Patents must be registered to be protected, and once granted they become public documents, but no one else can use the new idea for 20 years, unless the patentee gives permission (a license). Trademarks in most countries must be registered, too. Copyrights may be registered in certain countries but don't have to be. Trade secrets are not registered. Trademark and trade secret protection have no set duration, but if maintained may last indefinitely. Copyright lasts a certain number of years after the death of the author of the work (50, 70 or 90 depending on the country). After IP protection ends, the IP goes into the "public domain", i. e. everybody is free to use it. Virtually all countries of the world have IP laws, but there is no such thing as international protection. The United States, Japan and Germany are the great patent powers of the world, but many other countries, including China, Brazil, India, Singapore, Vietnam, South Africa, and Malaysia are coming on strong.

Additional Resources

See the website of the World Intellectual Property Organization, For searching patents and patent applications, see the very useful databases of the US Patent and Trademark Office, and of the European Union, The European database is worldwide and is the largest such database in the world. Another useful site for researchers and universities is the Association of University Technology Managers: Finally, the best organizational website for members is, the website of the Licensing Executives Society International and its many national chapters. The archives of LESI's publication, Les Nouvelles, are a goldmine of practical information on IP and how to use it to make financial success.

Rate this guide

Related Topics

Trade secrets and small businesses

A trade secret is an idea, process, or formula that gives the owner a competitive edge. Certain laws protect these secrets from becoming public knowledge.

Can't find what you're looking for? Ask a Lawyer

Get free answers from experienced attorneys.


Ask now

29,159 answers this week

3,578 attorneys answering