How to Protect Intellectual Property

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A patent attorney shaking hands with a client
A patent attorney shaking hands with a client (Image: AdamGregor/iStock/Getty Images)

Protecting your intellectual property means legally controlling others' access to your ideas and inventions. Before embarking on the path to intellectual property protection, understand your industry's view of intellectual property. For example, some manufacturers frequently introduce new versions of retail goods, so it makes sense to file near the end of the product-creation cycle. Conversely, telecommunications products have long useful lives, so those manufacturers should file for protection before bringing the products to market.

Patent Particulars

In the United States, patent protection extends to an individual who designs or creates a new machine, process or manufacturing technique, or makes a useful improvement to an existing one. A design patent applies specifically to the inventor's concept, while a utility patent pertains to the actual creation or construction of the machine, process or manufacturing technique. The United States Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO, functions as the central patent clearinghouse.

Trademark or Service Mark?

Manufacturers of physical goods want their products to be easily distinguishable from a competitor's similar item. To accomplish this, the manufacturer applies for a trademark that visually represents the company on that product's exterior or package. A trademark can be a design, symbol, word or phrase, or it can combine two or more of these separate elements. A service mark functions the same way, except it applies to a service rather than a product. Generally speaking, the word “trademark” often refers to both trademarks and service marks. The USPTO processes all trademark and service mark applications.

Copyright Registration Clue-in

A copyright protects individually authored works such as non-fiction books, movies, songs, poems, computer software and architecture. A copyright does not protect a concept, fact or operational process, though it can protect your expression of the concept, fact or process. A copyright can apply to a published work such as a book or an unpublished work, such as a manuscript. You receive copyright protection as soon as you produce your work in a concrete form, such as a paper manuscript or a saved computer file. You can voluntarily register your work with the United States Copyright Office. If you plan to file a lawsuit for infringement of a United States copyright, though, you will first have to register your work.

Fearless Application Filing

As the inventor or author, you can file a patent, trademark or service mark application with the USPTO. Afterward, you will likely need to answer multiple USPTO representative questions, some of which pertain to patent law. Eventually, you must decide whether to pursue or abandon your application. Alternatively, hire a registered patent attorney or agent to wade through this time-consuming legal morass. The attorney files your application and can also represent you in court. An agent has similar duties before the USPTO, but cannot represent your interests in court. When hiring a patent professional, determine if that practitioner has worked with independent inventors, especially in your field. Before you sign on the dotted line, contact the USPTO's Enrollment and Discipline branch, and ensure that the practitioner is in good standing.

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