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IP basics for your business: How to protect intellectual property
Anything you create has the potential to be copied by someone else. Here’s what you need to know about how to protect intellectual property.

Anything you create or build has the potential to be copied by someone else. And depending on how critical your idea is, you might want to protect it legally.

Protecting your intellectual property (or IP) assets also gives you a competitive advantage. It ensures that your hard work and financial investments are used to your business’ advantage.

Intellectual property basics


Sometimes you don’t have to apply for intellectual property protection.

If you write a book, compose a song, film a movie, or paint a piece, it’s protected by copyright automatically.

You’ll need to prove you created it. But you don’t officially apply for copyright. Protection exists immediately after you create the work.


Patents stop others from using, making or selling a certain invention for up to 20 years. A patent is an exclusive right granted by the government that protects the concept or idea behind your product.

Patents will usually protect:

  • New processes, machines, article of manufacture, composition of matter or any new and useful improvement.
  • New, original and ornamental designs.
  • Plant rights for any distinct and new plant variety.

Be aware: If you discuss, publish, sell or demonstrate your design in public before filing a patent or design registration application, it might be rejected because the idea is in the public domain.

To help you share any new idea, create a confidentiality agreement for all employees, potential investors and other parties of interest to sign before you disclose confidential information.


A trademark uniquely identifies your business from others.

It could be a logo or brand name (word, name, symbol or device) that indicates the source of the goods. A service mark is the same except that it identifies the source of a service rather than a product.

Trademarks can include:

  • Words like Nike’s “Just do it” catchphrase
  • Logos like the golden arches of McDonald’s
  • Shapes like Coca-Cola’s bottle design
  • Colors like the UPS’ Pullman brown
  • Sounds and smells like the roar of the MGM lion

A trademark protects your item, not the individual parts of it.

Once you register your trademark, you may use the ® symbol alongside it. Until then, you can “claim” it by using the TM symbol.

Trade secrets

A trade secret can be a formula, pattern, method or process that’s used in your business and gives you a chance at a competitive advantage.

It’s something you don’t want to legally protect because it’s either too expensive, not unique or isn’t something you want everyone to know after 20 years. (A famous example is KFC’s eleven herbs and spices recipe, which is a trade secret only.)

Registering your IP

If you need to register a patent, design, trademark or plant variety, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website has information and tools to help you.

You can even see if the item you want to protect is already trademarked with the Trademark Electronic Search System.

Did you know?
Every business has intangible assets. Learn what your intangible assets are—and why they need to be protected—here.

Tips to protect intellectual property

Talk cautiously

Before talking to someone about your idea, research their credentials thoroughly.

Look online for information about their career and double-check your findings by speaking with a few previous clients or partners.

Document everything

Document and date proof everything related to your ideas. It will help you enormously if you’re ever involved in a legal battle.

Make it a business-wide habit to have all paperwork documented twice. And make use of a secure cloud system to back up everything.

Have layers of information disclosure

Don’t hand over everything to any one person.

Draft a one-page outline that doesn’t reveal everything. You can provide more information as you gain confidence in that person.

Protect your intellectual property overseas

The World Intellectual Property Organization helps businesses protect IP assets overseas.

It’s a global forum site for intellectual property services, policy, information and cooperation.

You can learn more about this organization here.

Final thought

The last thing you want is for your IP to fall into the wrong hands.

You don’t want your competitors profiting from your ideas and hard work. And you don’t want disgruntled employees walking off with trade secrets.

It’s often a good idea to talk to an attorney specializing in IP law. This way, you can be sure you have the right protection for your business.

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