3318748484_9ff7e56362_oAs businesses grow and develop, they accumulate assets that could be protected by intellectual property laws, which could impart significant economic and tactical advantages. (*This post is intended to be very elemental and give you the basic, necessary information about intellectual property protection.)

With that in mind, here is a brief walk-through of the four major protections that U.S. intellectual property laws provide.

Trademark secures “marks”– symbols, phrases or images used to distinguish your goods or services from that of others. Trademark law rewards active use, not originality or how long ago you first used a mark. The mark must identify the producer; if it identifies the product (i.e. “responsive cloud computing services”), is geographic in nature (i.e. “Washington state apples”) or is offensive, it cannot be trademarked. Trademarks do not need to be registered, but it is a good idea if they are, since it’s easier to prove ownership and opens the door for greater damages in the event of an infringement.

Patents secure inventions, like computer software. Patent registration is a lengthy and potentially expensive process, but for many companies, it is worth it because a patent bestows a temporary monopoly on how and by whom an invention is used.

Copyright protects artistic works, like photographs and songs, that are fixed in some tangible medium and are expressions, not just ideas. It controls the right to perform, reproduce and display the work. As with trademarks, registration with the federal government is not necessary, but it is a good idea.

Trade secrets may be the least familiar of these four. Essentially, any information that is A.) not widely known B.) derives some economic value from not being widely known and C.) is subject to reasonable efforts to keep it from being widely known can be a trade secret. This includes customer and supplier lists, marketing strategies, growth plans and the like. The formula for Coca-Cola, for example, is considered the world’s most valuable trade secret. The unique element of trade secret protection is that unlike copyrights, trademarks and patents, which all have a built-in expiration period, it is potentially unlimited in duration.

To maximize the value of a business it is important to fully understand available intellectual property protections and how your business can make use of them.