By Audrey A. Millemann
A business’s intellectual property may be its most valuable asset. Whether it is biotechnology, trade names, business methods, or computer software, intellectual property should be protected to the greatest extent possible in order to maximize the value of the business. This article summarizes the types of intellectual property protection that are available.
What Is Intellectual Property Protection?
There are four types of intellectual property protection: patent, copyright, trademark, and trade secrets.
Patents protect inventions. A patent is a grant by the United States Government to the inventor of the rights to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention in the United States, or importing the invention into the United States. There are three kinds of patents: utility, design, and plant. A utility patent protects five classes of inventions: a process or method, a machine, an article of manufacture, a composition of matter (including chemical compositions, genes, and genetically engineered bacteria, plants, and animals), and an improvement of an invention in one of the other four classes. Subject matter that is not patentable includes pure mathematical algorithms that do not have steps, printed matter, natural compounds, and scientific principles. In order to be patentable, the invention must be useful, new (novel), and nonobvious.
A design patent protects new, original, ornamental designs for articles of manufacture. The patent protects only the appearance of the article, not any aspect of functionality.
Plant patents protect distinct, new varieties of a asexually reproducing plants (i.e. plants that can be reproduced without seeds, such as by budding or grafting), including certain types of roses, nuts, and fruit trees.
Copyrights protect original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium. Original works of authorship include books, musical compositions, multimedia works, dramatic productions, motion pictures, and computer programs and databases. Functional works such as ideas, procedures, processes, and methods are not protectable by copyright. A copyright entitles its owner to the exclusive rights to reproduce the work, prepare derivative works, distribute copies of the work, and perform and display the work publicly.
Trademarks and service marks protect words, symbols, phrases, and logos used to indicate the source of goods or services. The strongest marks are those that are coined (made up words) or arbitrary (words that do not have any connection to the product or service). Suggestive marks, which suggest a characteristic of the product or service, are less strong than coined or arbitrary marks. Descriptive marks, which describe the product or service, are not protectable unless they have achieved secondary meaning (a strong association with the source of the product or service). Generic marks are not protectable at all because they are simply words that have become used to identify the product itself.
Trade dress protection is similar to trademark protection and protects the overall look of a product, as long as it is inherently distinctive and nonfunctional.
Trade secret law protects information such as formulas, compilations, programs, devices, or methods, which derives independent economic value from not being generally known to others and is the subject of reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy.
Which Type of Protection Is Best?
A business may obtain all four types of intellectual property protection. For example, the product itself may be patentable, the name or brand may be a trademark, the literature or other written materials may be copyrightable, and the details of the manufacturing process for the product may be maintained as a trade secret.
In some cases, however, a decision must be made between the types of protection that will be used. One cannot obtain both patent and trade secret protection for the same thing. In order to obtain a patent, the invention must be disclosed to the public, while trade secret protection can be obtained only if the invention is kept secret. Patent and trade secret law offer different kinds of protection. A patent protects against the independent creation or reverse engineering of the device, while trade secret law does not protect against these acts. Patent and trade secret law have different requirements. An invention must be useful, novel, and nonobvious to be patentable, while there are no such requirements for trade secret protection.
In general, if both patent and trade secret protection are available, one should seek a patent if the invention is easily reverse-engineered or if it is disclosed when it is used (e.g. Amazon.com’s 1-Click method of accepting purchase orders over the Internet). If the invention is not easily reverse-engineered and not disclosed when it is used (e.g. the formula for Coca-Cola™), trade secret protection may be the better choice.
How Long Does the Protection Last?
A utility patent is valid for 20 years from the filing date of the patent application. A copyright lasts for the life of its author plus either 70 or 95 years, depending on the date of creation, unless it is a work-for-hire, which lasts for the shorter of either 95 years from the first publication or 120 years from creation. A trademark does not expire, as long as it is used. Trade secret protection lasts as long as the information is maintained as secret.
How Does One Obtain Protection?
A patent is obtained by filing, with the United States Patent and Trademark Office ("PTO"), a patent application containing claims (which set forth the scope and limits of the invention). The PTO conducts a search of the prior art, including U. S. and foreign patents and other publications, and issues a written opinion on whether the invention is patentable. The claims may be allowed or rejected. The applicant then has the opportunity to respond to the PTO and to explain why the claims should be allowed. After this process, called patent prosecution, the PTO either issues a patent or rejects the application. The process usually takes two to three years or so, depending on the type of invention and amount of prior art.
A copyright is obtained by filing an application with the United States Copyright Office. There is no examination process; it is simply a registration process.
A federal trademark is obtained by filing an application with the PTO. The PTO conducts an examination of other marks in use and determines whether there are similar marks and whether a likelihood of confusion could occur. If the PTO approves the mark, it is then registered. There is also protection for trademarks available under state law.
Trade secrets are governed by state law, in particular the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, which 43 states, including California, and the District of Columbia have adopted. There is no registration or examination procedure; a trade secret exists if the requirements set forth above are met.
What Advice Should a Client Be Given?
Clients should be advised to identify their intellectual property. This can be done through a formal audit by an intellectual property lawyer or informally by the company’s management. Once the intellectual property has been identified, the client should verify that it owns the intellectual property and, if not, take steps to secure ownership from employees or independent contractors. Then, an analysis should be made of the value of the intellectual property and a determination made of which items need to be protected and how they should be protected. If it is not economically feasible to protect all of the company’s intellectual property, management should prioritize the intellectual property and begin the effort necessary to obtain protection.