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How are trademarks different than other forms of Intellectual Property?

Intellectual Property (“IP”) refers to creations of the mind, such as creative works, inventions, and ideas. The four main types of intellectual property are patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets.


            Trademarks are words, phrases, symbols, or designs that identify a source of goods and services. As long as a mark is being used continuously in commerce, the owner may keep the registration in force forever. Trademarks can be registered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Filing a federal trademark application offers the most rights, but common law trademarks may also offer some protection by proving that you have established a reputation in a particular region.


            Copyright protects works of human expression, including: books, music and computer software. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created, and also covers both published and unpublished works. To obtain a copyright registration, an application must be filed with the U.S. Copyright Office. The length of protection for a registered copyright depends on when the work was created. Under the current law, works created after January 1, 1978 have a copyright term of life of the author plus seventy years after the author’s death. If the work is a joint work, the term is seventy years after the last surviving author’s death.


            Patents protect inventions and discoveries, such as new and useful machines, manufactured articles, industrial processes, and chemical compositions. Patent rights only exist once a patent is granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Once a patent is granted, the owner has a monopoly on the invention and may prevent others from making, using, selling, or importing the invention into the jurisdiction where the patent has been granted. The most commonly sought patents are design patents and utility patents. Design patents cover the ornamental design of useful objects. Utility patents cover the useful machine, product, or process.

Trade Secrets

            Trade secrets refer to any confidential information that has inherent economic value because it is not generally known or readily ascertainable by others. Examples of information that may constitute trade secrets are: formulas, designs, practices, instruments, patterns, and recipes. Trade secrets are guarded closely by the owner, who must ensure they take strict measures to control who has access to avoid disclosure. A trade secret may be protected forever as long as the owner takes the proper controls. Please note that there is no protection if a third party discovers the information on their own (there may be protection, however, if there was an unauthorized disclosure provided the owner took the necessary steps to control access to the trade secret).

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