Intellectual property (IP) refers to something produced due to creativity. IP can include tangible goods—individual works of art, books, or films—or intangible things like ideas and processes.
Logos, words, and slogans associated with a brand also fall under the IP umbrella, as do personas, likenesses, and voices.
Whether you’re a new entrepreneur or seasoned business owner, learn how to get IP protections for your products and services in this guide.
4 main types of intellectual property protection
Determining the best way to get legal protection for your work can be challenging. There are four main types of IP protections: copyrights, trademarks, patents, trade secrets.
Let’s explore these in more detail.
A copyright protects unique literary and artistic works created by an individual, in a tangible medium. Works that qualify for copyright protection include books, paintings, films, songs, poetry, and software.
A copyright holder has the exclusive rights to reproduce the work, publicly perform, display, distribute, or sell the work, and create derivative works.
Registration is not mandatory for copyright to exist—it is technically implied the moment the unique work is created. However, to exercise your legal rights in the case of copyright infringement, it is advisable to register it officially.
In the United States, a copyright lasts for the creator’s life, plus 70 years.
Trademarks refer to logos, brand names, and even slogans that identify a business and distinguish it from others.
Like a copyright, a trademark can exist without registration, simply through use of unique marks in association with your brand. Registration, however, establishes your legal ownership and right to exclusive use.
Trademarks do not expire provided the proper paperwork is filed at required intervals, and the trademarked logo or brand name continues to be used regularly in association with your business.
A patent protects rights to an invention, process, or even machinery. Patents can be held for 15 to 20 years depending on the type issued. For example, you can patent a new method for roasting coffee beans so other businesses cannot use it.
💡 Tip: Patents, trademarks, and copyrights are the three main areas of intellectual property law that people use to protect their ideas. Visit the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to learn more about Trademarks, Patents, and Copyrights and their application processes.
4. Trade secrets
A trade secret is any information or method a business uses to create a competitive advantage unknown to the public. A trade secret can be anything from a unique recipe to a manufacturing process.
Unlike other forms of intellectual property, trade secrets are not registered with the government and there is no expiration date. Trade secrets are only protected as long as the information remains a secret.
7 ways to protect intellectual property rights
1. Register copyrights and trademarks
The best way to protect your IP is by registering copyrights and trademarks. This will give you a legal right to exclusive use of your IP and act as a deterrent to would-be infringers.
For example, if you’ve created a new logo for your company, you can register it with the US Copyright Office. Once it’s registered, you can sue anyone who uses it without your permission.
2. Use nondisclosure agreements and confidentiality agreements
If you plan to disclose your IP to others, make sure to do so under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). This will prevent the recipient from disclosing your IP to others without your permission.
For example, if you plan to share your invention with a potential investor, you should have the investor sign an NDA before disclosing any details.
3. Protect trade secrets
You can protect your IP as a trade secret. This means keeping it confidential and only disclosing it to people who need to know, such as specific employees.
Say you’ve developed a new software algorithm that gives your company a competitive edge. You can keep it a secret and only disclose it to employees who need to know, such as your developers.
4. Implement security measures
Guard your secret IP with physical and digital security measures. For example, you can restrict access to your Lab where you develop new products or ideas.
From a digital perspective, you can also encrypt your confidential files and limit access to them. For example, you can store them on a password-protected server that only authorized employees can access.
5. Educate employees
Ensure your employees know your company’s IP policy and the importance of keeping IP confidential. You can do this by having them sign NDAs, providing training on company IP policy, and putting up reminders around the office.
You can educate your employees by providing them with training on your IP policies and procedures. You can also include these policies in your employee handbook.
6. Use a digital rights management (DRM) system
If you plan to sell or distribute digital content, such as ebooks, music, or software, you can use a DRM system to control how your customers use your content. For example, you can use DRM to prevent copying and unauthorized distribution.
With a DRM, you can set rules on how your content can be used. For example, you can allow your customers to view your ebook on three different devices but only let them print 10 pages.
7. Monitor for infringement
Monitoring for infringement can be difficult and time-consuming. However, it’s important to do this to protect your IP.
There are a few ways you can do this, such as conducting internet searches, setting up Google Alerts, and monitoring social media. You can also hire a service that specializes in monitoring for IP infringement.
How intellectual property enforcement works
Intellectual property enforcement is the process of protecting and enforcing intellectual property rights. These rights include patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets. Enforcement of these rights is done through the legal system, and can involve civil or criminal penalties.
1. Copyright infringement
Copyright infringement is the unauthorized use of copyrighted material. This can include using someone else's copyrighted work without permission, or using copyrighted material in a way that violates the copyright holder's rights. Copyright infringement is a civil offense, and can be prosecuted in federal court.
2. Trademark infringement
Trademark infringement is the unauthorized use of a trademark. This can include using a trademark that violates the rights of the trademark holder, or using a trademark that is confusingly similar to another trademark. Trademark infringement is a civil offense, and can be prosecuted in federal court.
3. Patent infringement
Patent infringement is the unauthorized use of a patented invention. This can include making, using, selling, or importing a patented invention without the permission of the patent holder.
4. Trade secret misappropriation
Trade secret misappropriation is the unauthorized disclosure of a trade secret. This can include disclosing a trade secret to someone not authorized to know it, or using a trade secret in a way that violates the rights of the trade secret holder.
Fighting intellectual property theft
Before you pursue the matter, consider whether the offending work qualifies as a copyright infringement under federal copyright law:
- Is your work protected by a valid copyright (or is it eligible for registration)?
- Does the alleged infringing party have access to your work? For example, could they have seen the work on a website or in a store?
- Does the use of the work fall outside of the exceptions to the law (e.g., the fair use doctrine)? In some cases, use of copyrighted work may be protected under fair use, allowing a court to reduce the damages if the infringing party can establish grounds for an exception. Determining fair use depends on several factors, including the purpose of use, the nature of the work, and the impact on the market of the original work.
Did you answer yes to these questions?
Next, hire an intellectual property attorney. A legal professional can help you register a copyright for the work even after the infringement has occurred. If you haven’t already protected your work, you can still do so.
However, published works copyrighted more than three months after publication no longer qualify for statutory damages (a set amount of damages per work).
A legal professional can help you register a copyright for the work even after the infringement has occurred.
The Copyright Office, though it administers the law and provides registration, does not enforce copyright law.
If you believe that your work has been copied, the matter may be solved simply via a warning (or cease and desist) letter from your lawyer, including a copy of the copyright certificate.
If you are seeking damages, the next steps would involve filing a petition for a copyright infringement injunction or lawsuit, and the case would be settled by federal courts.
If you’re just starting out and can’t afford to hire representation, there are plenty of resources for free or low-cost legal advice.
Ready to create your business? Start your free trial of Shopify—no credit card required.
Protecting intellectual property FAQ
What are 4 types of intellectual property protection?
- Patent protection
- Trade secret protection
- Trademark rights
- Copyright protection