Intellectual Property 101

Companies across a variety of industries that actively manage their “intellectual property” consistently produce  higher stakeholder value than their peers.  But what constitutes an intellectual property (IP) of an organization?

The IP portfolio of a company includes – patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets.


A patent is a government grant of rights, for a limited period of time, to exclude others from making, using and selling within the territory controlled by the government a novel and a useful invention.  Companies typically seek Utility or Design patents. There is also another category of patents called plant patents, which won’t be covered here.

  • Utility patents are meant for devices, compositions of matter,  methods of operation or manufacturing, new uses of existing devices, business processes etc.
  • Design patents focus on ornamental appearance of a useful article.

Patents are are only approved on inventions that are novel, useful & on-obvious.   An invention meets the criteria can thus be protected by filing a patent application with the USPTO.  A patent once issued, is valid up to 20 years from the date the patent was issued.

An idea is just a problem statement. An invention is a solution  to that problem. Ideas aren’t patentable – only inventions are.


A copyright is a government grant of an exclusive rights to reproduce, display and perform the original form of expression embodied in creative works, such as writings, movies, and computer programs.

A copyright is only granted for original works of authorship and is protected by applying for copyright protection (copyright notice, registration) from the government. A copyright lasts for the life of the author + 50 years.


A trademark is a government grant of a right to exclude others from the use of a word, logo,  design or a similar identifier of source in connection with specific goods or services in commerce.

A trademark is granted if the identifier of the source is capable of distinguishing (e.g.  apple logo) and is protected by use in commerce and registration of the trademark with the government.  Additionally, a trademark once granted can be held indefinitely.


Any formula, pattern, device or compilation of information, which is not generally known and when used in one’s business, gives  the possessor a competitive advantage can be categorized as a Trade Secret e.g. coca-cola recipe

A trade secret  given its nature is protected by keeping it a secret or sharing it with partners under limited confidential disclosure or non-disclosure agreements.  A trade secret once divulged to the public can no longer be protected.