There are many types of intellectual property, and it can be confusing to know which ones apply to you and your business.
In this post, we’ll go over the four most common types of intellectual property (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), plus four lesser-known types that may be relevant to you.
But before we dive in, let’s do a quick definition…
What is Intellectual Property?
Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works, designs, symbols, names and images.
IP is divided into two categories:
- Industrial property, which includes patents for inventions, trademarks, industrial designs, and geographic indications;
- Copyright, which includes literary works, films, music, paintings and architectural designs.
Each country has its own laws to protect IP; however, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) functions as a global forum for intellectual property policy, services, information and cooperation.
So, now that we understand what intellectual property is, let’s dive into the different types of intellectual property.
We’ll start with the most common ones:
The 4 Most Common Types of Intellectual Property (With Examples)
A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one company from those of another.
In the United States, a trademark can be registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to protect it from being used by others without permission. However, this will not protect the trademark in foreign countries. As such, a trademark must be filed in each country where protection is sought.
Some well-known trademarks include:
- Nike’s “swoosh” logo
- Coca-Cola’s red and white color scheme
- McDonald’s golden arches
- Capital One’s “What’s in your wallet?” slogan
- Product names like iPod
2. Trade Secrets
Image Source: KFC Asset Library
A trade secret is any information that has economic value and is not generally known to the public. Trade secrets can include formulas, patterns, compilations, programs, devices, methods, techniques or processes.
To protect a trade secret, businesses must take measures to keep the information confidential. If a trade secret is leaked or stolen, the business may be able to sue for damages.
Some well-known trade secrets include:
- The recipe for Coca-Cola
- The Google search algorithm
- The formula for KFC’s “original recipe” chicken
- Big Mac’s “special sauce” recipe
- The qualifications for New York Times Bestseller List
A copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects artistic and literary works. This includes books, music, paintings, sculptures and other types of creative works.
Copyrights are granted by the government and last for the life of the author plus 70 years. Anonymous, pseudonymous and commissioned works have copyright protection for 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever is shorter.
Protection against unauthorized copyright use in a certain country is determined by that country’s legislation.
Some well-known copyrighted works include:
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
- Star Wars movies by George Lucas
- The “Tiny Music…” album by Stone Temple Pilots
Copyright law also applies to digital assets such as website content, software code and app design. For example, Facebook holds copyrights to the code that powers its social media platform.
We’ll discuss digital assets in more detail later.
A patent is a form of intellectual property that protects inventions.
To be eligible for a patent, an invention must be original, beneficial, and not common knowledge. A patent gives the inventor the exclusive right to make, use or sell the invention for 20 years.
Some well-known patented inventions include:
- The light bulb by Thomas Edison
- The telephone by Alexander Graham Bell
- The two-stroke engine by Karl Benz
- Bluetooth technology by Jaap Haartsen
- Apple II by Apple Computers
If you are found guilty of infringing on someone else’s patent, you could be fined or jailed. In some cases, you may also have to pay damages to the patent holder.
4 Less-Common Types of Intellectual Property You Should Know
1. Digital Assets
Digital assets are a type of intellectual property that exists in digital form. As mentioned earlier, this includes websites, software code and app design. Digital assets can be protected by copyrights, trademarks, or trade secrets.
Digital assets can be bought, sold or licensed like any other type of property. For example, Facebook has bought several companies for their digital assets, including Instagram and WhatsApp.
It is also important to keep your digital assets up to date. For example, you should regularly update your website’s content and software code. This will help prevent others from infringing on your intellectual property rights.
A franchise is a type of intellectual property that allows someone to use the trademark, trade name and business model of another business. Franchises are typically granted by larger companies to small businesses.
Some well-known franchises include:
- Dunkin’ Donuts
- How to Franchise Your Business: 7 Steps for Small Businesses
- Questions to ask before becoming a franchisee
3. Geographical Indications
A geographical indication is a type of intellectual property that is used to identify a product that comes from a particular country, region or locality. Geographical indications are typically used for food and drink products (as you’ll see in the examples below).
Some well-known geographical indications include:
- Champagne from the Champagne region of France
- Tequila from the Tequila region of Mexico
- Roquefort cheese from the Roquefort caves in France
Geographical indications are protected by international treaties, such as the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). In order to receive protection, geographical indications must be registered with the appropriate intellectual property office.
4. Industrial Designs
An industrial design is a type of intellectual property that protects the visual appearance of a product. Industrial designs can include the shape, pattern and color of a product.
Industrial designs are protected by the Hague Agreement Concerning the International Deposit of Industrial Designs and other international treaties. For a geographical indication to be legally protected, it must first be registered with the corresponding intellectual property office.
That’s a Wrap on Intellectual Property
Each type of intellectual property has its own set of rules and regulations, so it’s important to consult a lawyer before making any decisions for your business. This post is simply a high-level primer to get you started.
But with that said, I want to hear from you.
Which types of intellectual property do you use in your business? What have been your experiences with them?
Let me know in a comment below!
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