Intellectual property (IP) is among the most valuable forms of ownership in the world. Just consider the value of McDonald’s golden arches, the technology behind Bluetooth, Coca-Cola’s secret formula, or the printing rights to the Harry Potter novels. Each of these is a type of intellectual property, and the protection afforded to them is invaluable. If you’re a creator of any kind, it’s important to recognize the four types of intellectual property rights.

By making an effort to understand these rights, you’ll be able to decide which types of protection are appropriate for your intellectual property. After all, you don’t want to waste money filing a copyright registration if what you really need is a trademark. Not only will you lose money on the application fee, but your registration will likely be rejected. Here’s what you need to know to ensure your IP rights are fully protected.

What Is Intellectual Property?

Before delving into intellectual property types, it’s wise to understand the basics of the terminology. IP is a form of property that covers intangible creations of the human intellect. These creations can come in a variety of forms. If you read a book recently, it’s covered by intellectual property laws. If you saw a company logo, the same is true. Even the technology that created the smartphone you’re reading this blog on enjoys intellectual property protections.

While intellectual property covers intangible creations, it doesn’t mean that the resulting products, services, or inventions aren’t tangible. A blueprint containing protected information can be used to build a machine. A logo signifying who an item was made by can be placed on a t-shirt. The words that flow from a person’s brain can be put into book form. The ideas behind IP are intangible, but the resulting items and profits are very real.

The 4 Types of Intellectual Property Rights

Different types of intellectual property are often confused with each other. This doesn’t matter much if the confusion takes place on a college exam or in normal conversation. However, such mistakes can prove very costly for those who need IP protection rights. If you have anything that qualifies as intellectual property, it falls into one of the following categories:


Anything that identifies the source of products or services can serve as a trademark. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) states that a trademark is any word, phrase, design, symbol, or combination of these that serves to identify the goods and services provided by a brand. However, protections can cover much more. For instance, did you know that a popular cell phone company has a trademark on the color magenta?

Trademarks are one of the most used types of intellectual property. That’s because just about every business, organization, and brand in the world can benefit from such protections. Registration with the USPTO provides a variety of safeguards — including preventing others from diluting your brand or profiting off your reputation. This makes trademarks one of the most valuable properties that many brands will ever own.


Copyrights are granted to original creative works and give their owners the exclusive right to publish, perform, copy, distribute, and otherwise utilize their works. This form of intellectual property most often gets confused with trademark safeguards. That’s because an artistic drawing could qualify for both types of protection. An original creative work garners copyright protection, but if it also serves as a brand identifier, it’s likely also considered a trademark.

Copyright registration provides some of the most lasting protections among all the four types of intellectual property. That’s because registration persists for the entirety of the owner’s life plus 70 years. These protections become valid the moment a creative work is placed into a tangible form — such as when a statue is sculpted or this blog is published online. While copyright registration isn’t required, failure to register will minimize your remedies for infringement.


A patent prevents other parties from making, selling, or using a protected invention for a specified period of time. This period is 20 years in America. It essentially excludes others from using any novel creation. Patents are issued for new inventions that fall under the categories of processes, machines, formulas, manufactures, instruments, or useful improvements to current inventions. Unlike trademarks, you can patent an item with zero intention of using it yourself.

The important thing to remember is that patent protection requires public disclosure. This means you’ll be exposing the intricate workings or formulas of whatever creation you’re protecting. After 20 years, others will be able to freely use this information if they want. That means you’ll only have two decades to profit exclusively from your invention. After that, you could lose any competitive advantage you have in your industry.

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are an alternative to patent protection. They cover the same types of inventions protected by patent registration. However, these inventions are kept secret rather than publicly disclosed. While this provides less protection than a patent, it also means you don’t have to share your creations with the public and can continue to profit exclusively from them far beyond 20 years. For instance, the Coca-Cola formula has been safeguarded for over 130 years.

There are certain requirements that must be met for trade secret protection to apply. The information must have intrinsic economic value, and the owner of this intellectual property must make reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy. If a trade secret is revealed, there’s nothing to stop companies or the general public from using the information. However, you may have a valid legal claim if your trade secret was misappropriated or shared without your consent.

What Can You Do About Intellectual Property Infringement?

If someone has infringed on your IP rights, it may be in your best interest to speak with an intellectual property attorney. Whether you have the right to prevent others from using your IP will depend on a variety of factors. For instance, are your properties federally registered? Are the potential infringers engaged in what’s known as fair use? Is it possible your intellectual property is no longer protected?

These are all important questions. However, the most important reason to speak with an attorney is that they’ll know how to respond to infringement. This could be as simple as filing a cease and desist order, reporting misuse to the USPTO, or even filing a lawsuit in federal court. The best decision will depend entirely on what type of intellectual property you have and the circumstances behind its misuse. Contact our law firm today to learn more.