Intellectual property differs from regular property in that the former is intangible and includes examples like ideas, expressions, formulas, or many other creations of the mind. Intellectual property, like any other personal property, may be bought, sold, or leased. The major types of intellectual property include patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets.
A patent is type of government protection afforded to new and unique items. Patents allow the inventor of the item a monopoly over the right to use, manufacture, or distribute the item. This means that a patent holder has an exclusive right to be the sole producer of the patented item for a set period of years. In general, this period lasts for about 20, as of the most current legislation. There are three major types of patents: utility, design, and plant. Utility patents protect the functionality of a particular design or idea, design patents protect the ornamental characteristics of an object, and plant patents protects varying strains of asexually reproducible flora.
A trademark is a recognizable symbol, figure, slogan, or mark that is used by manufacturers or entrepreneurs to distinguish their product from competitor’s products. Trademark protection ensures that only the company in possession of this protection can use the associated trademark. Trademarks, copyrights and patents are not mutually exclusive.
A copyright protects the author of an original work from having his material taken, performed, and/or reproduced without consent. Copyrights are afforded to authors, musicians, dramatists, painters sculptors, photographers, and so on. A utility patent would protect the function of an object (ensuring that no other person could make an item with similar function) but a copyright only prevents others from reproducing specific copyright material. For instance, a book could not be reprinted without the permission of the author, but a book with similar characters, themes, and plot points could be produced without infringing on copyright. The only way to use copyrighted material without leasing or paying for it, is through free use, which allows copyrighted material to be reproduced in part without permission for purposes such as journalism, review, or satire, to name a few. Copyrights and patents are not mutually exclusive.
Any confidential information that gives your business an edge on the competition can be considered a trade secret. The legal definition of trade secret is actually fairly broad, so it is difficult to give an answer that is accurate, informative and concise. Generally, trade secrets need to be determined on a case by case basis.
Prosecution varies by what is being prosecuted (patent, copyright, trademark) and can vary even in individual cases within these groups. There is no set amount of time the process will take but on average trademarks take about 10 months to fully prosecute while patents take more than three times as long and have a much higher average of over 30 months. Copyright registration does not take as long as trademark registration or patent prosecution, but is nevertheless a process that takes several months. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, the current processing time for e-filing is between, generally, 3 to 5 months. For paper forms, that processing time is, generally, between 5 - 8 months.
Again, filing fees can change, sometimes drastically, on a case by case basis, but here are the standard rates: Patents tend to cost around $1000 not including maintenance fees that need to be paid after the patent is filed. These fees are administrative type fees that the U.S. government charges applicants. Similarly, a Trademark application costs between $200 and $400 to file with the USPTO. The government has its own separate office for copyright registration, and that office has its own administrative type fees. Copyright fees however are significantly less than trademark and patent fees; these cost a paltry $35 if registered online through the US Copyright Office.
Learn more about copyrights at the US Copyrights Office website and learn more about trademarks and patents at US Patents and Trademarks Office websites. Links to these sites are provided in the Resources section to the right.