Intellectual property strategy

Intellectual property categories

Optimize your intellectual property strategy by using a combination of patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets.  

In theory, the different categories of IP (utility patents, provisional patents, design patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets) are distinct. However, in practice, these can somewhat overlap. Each is a type of IP protection tool. Maximize your intellectual property strategy by picking the right set of tools for the right situation.

Patents (utility patents) cover useful, original, and nonobvious ideas for gadgets, physical objects, compositions of matter (e.g., drugs), and the like. The USPTO carefully reviews these and requires that issued patents must be published. They can last for up to 20 years if you pay the maintenance fees.

Provisional patents are mostly a short-lived (1-year) first draft of a utility patent.

Patents (design patents) cover the ornamental appearance of a functional item. These also must be filed, reviewed, and ultimately disclosed to the public. These last for 15 years, maintenance fees not required.

Copyrights cover original written material, music, images, movies, and the like. These can last over a lifetime (e.g., the lifetime of the author plus 70 years) after initial publication. Registration not initially required, but eventually needed to enforce rights.

Trademarks cover the words, symbols, or packaging associated with certain classes of products and services in commerce.  Registration, disclosure to the public, and review are required. These have no lifetime limit, so long as the owner periodically sends in proof of continued use in commerce.

Trade Secrets cover undisclosed commercially useful information not generally known to the public or trade. These can include unpatentable items such as recipes, as well as un-copyrightable items such as lists. No lifetime limit, provided that the secret does not get exposed.

Sometimes it is possible to improve your intellectual property strategy by handling the IP under multiple categories. Examples include:

  • Using a non-publication request to keep the IP secret while pursuing a US patent
  • Converting a utility patent drawing to a later design patent
  • Protecting a user interface IP as a utility patent, design patent, and copyright
  • Recording a distinctive design as both a design patent and a trademark
  • Filing a distinctive image (or fragment of literature) as both a copyright and a trademark

There are some tricky aspects to the multiple category approach as well; these include:

  • Cases where international IP rules are different from US rules
  • Trying to use a provisional patent for a later design patent
  • Shifting copyright (non-functional) vs patent (functional) and design patent (ornamental appearance of functional item) distinctions
  • Competitors using your assertions for one IP category against another IP category

So “mind the gap,” but try to formulate an intellectual property strategy.

Trade Secrets

“Sshh” by Deborah Azzopradi

Consider trade secrets, especially when your commercially important secrets are unsuitable for patent or copyright protection.

Consider the formula for Coca-Cola and its “natural flavorings”, which dates back over 100 years.  Even if the formula could have been patented (unlikely), the patent would be long expired.  The formula might not be even eligible for copyright since it is a list.  In any event, copyrights by now would be both expired and useless. This is because copyrights for a recipe would only cover the sequence of printed words.  However as various closely guarded trade secrets, the formula remains valuable (the trademark, of course, is almost priceless).

In addition to recipes, trade secrets can include production methods, marketing methods, computer software, and the like. Pretty much any information that gives a business competitive advantage, and is not generally known, is a potential trade secret.

Trade secret protection is very narrow – unless you can prove to a court that you carefully guarded the secret, such as with NDA, and someone with access to the secret then misappropriated the secret, you are out of luck. If someone figures out the secret by other means (e.g. reverse engineering), there is no protection, even for Coca-Cola.

However, if you can convince the court that trade secret theft occurred, you can request injunctions (e.g. block disclosure), damages (your economic harm caused by the theft), and possibly even seizure of materials and/or attorney fees.

Until recently, trade secrets were only handled at the state level.  However, in May 2016, the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA) was signed into law.  Trade secret theft can now be handled in either state or federal court. This type of theft can now be charged under both civil and even criminal law.

So if you are doing a startup, think about which of your non-commonly known information gives you a competitive edge. Where appropriate, apply for patents and trademarks and register copyrights to prove copyright ownership.  For the rest, although some disclosure may be required for marketing and fund-raising, try to limit this disclosure, and take positive steps (e.g. restriction of access, nondisclosure agreements) to preserve not-generally-known information that is competitively important.