Business person pointing to VR screen with copyright icon
Business person pointing to VR screen with copyright icon

Protecting your intellectual property

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

Protecting your IP assets also lets you maintain a competitive advantage and ensures that your hard work and financial investments are used to your business’s advantage.

Protecting your IP in the US

If you need to register a patent, design, trademark or plant variety, the USPTO website has information and search tools to help you prepare to apply for IP protection. For example, the USPTO Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) checks that the item you want to protect isn’t currently trademarked.

Learn more about US trademark requirements at the US Patent and Trademark Office.


Sometimes you don’t have to apply for intellectual property protection. If you’ve written a book, composed a song, filmed a movie, or painted a work of art, it will be protected by ‘copyright’ automatically. You’ll need to prove you’ve created it, but you don’t officially ‘apply’ for copyright as protection exists immediately after you’ve created 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, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement
  • new, original, and ornamental designs
  • plant rights for any distinct and new variety of plant

Be aware if you discuss, publish, sell or demonstrate your invention or design in public before filing a patent or design registration application, it may be rejected (as the idea is in the ‘public domain’. To help you share any new idea, draw up a confidentiality agreement so all employees, potential investors and other parties of interest sign it before you disclose any confidential information.


A trademark uniquely identifies your business among others. It could be a logo or a 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 such as the golden arches of McDonald’s
  • Shapes like Coca-Cola’s bottle design
  • Colors such as the UPS’s Pullman brown
  • Sounds and smells, for example 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 could be a formula, pattern, method, or process that’s used in your business and gives you a chance to get an advantage over your competitors, that you don’t want to legally protect because it’s either too expensive, it’s not that unique, or you don’t want everyone to know after 20 years (a famous example is KFC’s eleven herbs and spices recipe which is a trade secret only).

Be careful who you speak with

Before talking to another person about your idea, research their credentials thoroughly. Look on the Internet for information about their career and double check by speaking with a few of their previous clients or partners.

If you are ever drawn into a legal battle, it will help enormously if you have written and dated proof of everything relating to your ideas. Make it a business-wide habit to have all paperwork documented twice, making use of the cloud to back-up everything.

Have layers of information disclosure

Don’t hand over everything to any one person. Have a one-page outline that doesn’t reveal everything, then provide more information as you gain confidence in the person you’re talking to.

Protecting your IP overseas

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) helps businesses protect IP assets overseas. It’s a global forum site for intellectual property services, policy, information and cooperation.

Take a look at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) website to find out more.


In the end, 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, nor do you want disgruntled employees walking off with trade secrets. It’s often a good idea to talk to a lawyer who specializes in IP law, so you can be sure you have the right kind of protection for your business.