Protection: Know The Methods

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Intellectual property generally takes one of four forms: inventions, ideas, trade secrets, and goodwill. Each has its own method of protection.
  • A patent issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office grants an inventor exclusive right to an invention for 20 years from the date of application. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site, a patent can be obtained by anyone who "invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof." In addition to being new and useful, an invention also must meet one other condition before a patent can be issued: It must not be obvious.
  • A copyright registered with the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress gives authors the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute copies of, perform, or display literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. While the bulk of copyrights are issued for works in the arts, they're also granted to business ideas, such as source code and mission statements.
  • Trade secrets fall under state law and are defined as confidential information that provides indisputable economic value. A business owner can turn to trade-secret laws if such information is improperly disclosed -- by a former employee, for instance -- or is otherwise illegally acquired by a competitor.
  • A trademark registered with the Patent and Trademark Office grants ownership of a word, name, symbol, or device that indicates the source of traded goods and distinguishes those goods from the goods of others. The owner of a trademark can prevent others from using a confusingly similar mark, protecting the goodwill that a brand carries with it. But the trademark can't be used to prevent them from selling the same goods under a clearly different mark.

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