What is “intellectual property”?

Intellectual property is any type of idea, invention, or other tangible or intangible work that is protected by common law or statute. While there are federal laws governing the protection of intellectual property rights, there are also various state protections as well. The three most common categories of intellectual property rights are trademarks, copyrights, and patents.

Trademarks are words, symbols, colors, or sounds that identify a particular class or of goods and services. They are the way that the public is able to distinguish your goods and services from those of your competitors. For instance, the marks Coca Cola and Pepsi are different registered trademarks that relate to the class of goods “soft drinks.” The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has a video here that describes some things that small business owners should know about trademarks.

Copyright is the right to the exclusive right to use, display, print, publish, perform, film, or record any type of literary, artistic, or musical material. Rather than applying to a class of goods and services, a copyright protects any “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” As you might suspect, such a definition is subject to multiple interpretations, and often leads to disputes, requiring courts to decide whether the content at issue is protectable.

Patents are protection afforded to a process, design, or other invention. Unlike copyrights, which focus on whether something is creative, patents focus on whether something has utility that is unique and new.

All businesses have intellectual property, whether they know it or not. How they use and protect their intellectual property, however, can greatly affect the value of their business, especially as the business owners prepare to sell the company. If you do not know what intellectual property you have or how you have protected it, contact us today to learn more about this important aspect of your business.


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Charles Wentworth
Charles Wentworth
Charles Wentworth
Charles is an attorney in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. After graduating from the University of Utah, he clerked for Chief Justice John T. Broderick of the New Hampshire Supreme Court. He then became a litigation associate at Kirkland & Ellis LLP before opening his own office and partnering with Rick Lofgren. He lives just outside of Chicago, where he participates in community activities, including Boy Scouts and little-league baseball.