Patents, Trademarks, Copyrights and Trade Secrets: A Guide

If you’re an entrepreneur, it’s likely that you’ve heard about intellectual property. If you aren’t particularly familiar with the details of it, this is a great place to start!

Intellectual property (IP) law can be broken up into four main areas: patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets.

Regardless of your industry, IP law can play a major role in protecting your original ideas, especially if you’re just starting out and part of a smaller venture.

Here is a guide to patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets to help get you started on IP law!


To kick things off, it comes as no surprise that many entrepreneurs aspire to one day become the proud owner of a patent. It is the ultimate protection for original inventions and developed products, and it gives you a temporary monopoly (up to 20 years!) when you first take it to market.

J.D. Houvener, founder and CEO of Bold Patents Charolette Law Firm, has a particular passion for this area of IP law:

“I feel like entrepreneurs truly shine when they pursue a patent for their original invention because it’s like the peak of innovation. It’s what perpetually expands our market and pushes inventors to come up with newer and better ideas, and it rewards them for that effort! Making sure brilliant minds get their due credit is such an important part of progress.”

That said, the patent cost tends to end up in the range of thousands of dollars, so there are some pretty substantial cost barriers in this area. Nevertheless, thousands upon thousands of patents are granted every year because of just how rewarding an official patent can be.

While a big part of the cost is often the patent attorney that helps you through the process, the high price comes with great value. Patent law can be extremely detailed and complicated, so even if you feel comfortable in understanding the different patents (such as utility vs. design patents) and the overall concept, patent attorneys can help to save you a lot of headache from denied applications or dangerous loopholes that big companies will take advantage of.

Ultimately, if you’re an inventor with a great, original idea, develop it and pursue that patent when it is finally ready. Even if you are really just an inventor and don’t want to actually run a business with the idea, you can always sell it and still profit off your hard work.


Less intense (and expensive) but still critically important trademark. These surround IP protection for anything to do with branding, whether it be the name of your brand, a slogan or any other key element that helps consumers to recognize you

Trademarks are equally important for the buyer and the seller because they help consumers to factor in the reputation and reliability of a brand when making their purchasing decisions. It is important to the brands because it helps them to maintain customer loyalty and market themselves in a unique and desirable way.

Unlike patents, trademarks do fall under common law, giving you automatic credit for your unique ideas. That said, registration is required for protection on an international level (including imports) and taking cases of infringement to the federal court. On the other hand if you don’t need an international trademark you can just register your business in the state that you operate in. It’s important to note that every state in the USA has small variations of the trademark law, so it would be best if you find a lawyer that’s based in your state. For example, if you are from Cali, you should consult with a California-based lawyer.

Plus, official registration gives you the right to use the ® symbol so that everyone knows that your trademark is registered and official.


Copyrights surround the world of art. This can be anything from writing to music and even film, not just visual artwork like photography or drawings.

A work can qualify for copyright as long as it possesses a certain degree of originality and creativity. For example, you can’t play a common chord progression on a guitar that millions of artists have used throughout time and receive copyright, but you could copyright the way you use that chord progression with a unique melody in a song.

Copyright law will give the creator/owner of the copyright the sole rights to that work. This means that only they can reproduce/distribute copies of it, perform/display it in a public setting or even create derivative works (arguably the most common area of copyright infringement).

One of the best parts of copyright law is that you receive automatic protection under common law as soon as you can show and prove that you created that original idea. That said, it is still important to officially register your work if you want to be able to truly hold infringing parties accountable in court.

Trade Secrets

Not all of your unique and important ideas are things that you’ll want to share with the public, even hidden under piles of paperwork with the USPTO.

This is where trade secrets come into play. This helps to officially protect and guard any valuable information that helps to give you and your business an edge. Plus, it holds people accountable if they are responsible for carelessly leaking the information (or stealing it).

The kinds of things that may come to mind with this are probably secret recipes or ingenious methods for conducting business, but it could actually be as mundane as vendor lists as well. Basically, it just needs to be independently valuable and there needs to be a reasonable amount of effort made to keep the information a secret (you can’t go around posting it on your Facebook page, for instance).

By successfully protecting your trade secrets in addition to the more publicly known treasures of your business, you can truly feel secure in knowing that your original ideas will be secure and protected.

In Summary

No matter your industry, protecting your intellectual property is an important part of developing any new and original idea.

This goes beyond simply protecting your original innovations and product ideas through patents! You also have to make sure you protect your branding with trademarks, art with copyrights and secret information with trade secrets.

The main takeaway is that you put a lot of work and creativity into your intellectual property, no matter what form it takes. For that reason, you should be the one to reap the benefits of that property, even if it is in the form of selling your patent or rights instead of actively competing in the market with them.

Annika Bansal

Annika "The Chick Geek" is the founder of Small Business Sense shares small business ideas, tips and resources for independent Entrepreneurs and Small Business owners.