Please Protect Your Intellectual Property – Part I: Overview


Entrepreneurs need to protect their intellectual property. But first you need to identify your intellectual property, so, what is intellectual property? The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office says that Intellectual property (IP) is “creations of the mind: creative works or ideas embodied in a form that can be shared or can enable others to recreate, emulate, or manufacture them.”

Intellectual property comes in four forms: patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets. Each form will be explored in the second through fifth parts in this series of blog postings.

PATENTS are a property right granted … to an inventor ‘to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention when the patent is granted. There are three types of patents: 1) Utility patents …; 2) Design patents …; and 3) Plant patents.”

Examples of a utility patent are a new functional design of a toothpaste tube, an athletic shoe, or the circuit of a mobile phone. Design patent examples are the appearance of medications or computer hardware. Plant patents could be a new variation of corn or tomatoes.

Companies can patent product designs in the name of the employees who invented them. Many companies have employees sign a document like a pre-invention assignment agreement at the time of employment.

COPYRIGHTS are a form of protection provided to the authors of ‘original works of authorship’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished.”

Examples of copyrighted material are a published book, the sheet music for a composition, a photograph, or a piece of art. Software can be copyrighted. So can the content and layout of a website.

The use of a piece of music to represent a person, cause, or organization is covered under copyright law.

TRADEMARKS protect words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish goods and services from those manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of the goods.”

Examples of a trademark are the Nike “swoosh,” the logo for Starbucks, McDonalds’ golden arches, or Apple’s apple (with a bite taken out). Trademarks can also include the roar of the MGM lions, the scent of perfumes, the pink color of insulation and the Burberry plaid.

TRADE DRESS, a concept similar to trademark, protects the visual appearance of a product or packaging that shows a consumer the source of the goods or services.

Examples of trade dress include the appearance and decorations in a Mexican restaurant, the design of magazine covers and the shape of children’s clothing.

“A TRADE SECRET is information that companies keep secret to give them an advantage over their competitors. Trade secrets consist of information and can include a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique or process. To meet the most common definition of a trade secret, it must be used in business, and give an opportunity to obtain an economic advantage over competitors who do not know or use it.”

A classic example of a trade secret is the formula for Coca-Cola. Never patented. Only known to a very few trusted people. Software source code is another example. Certain customer information, like preferences, can also be trade secret.

Intellectual property is only valuable if the owner is willing and able to defend it. That can be a daunting task. There are large companies who fend off charges of patent violation, by a small inventor, by countering with a mountain of patents held by the large company.

Businesses need to identify the information that is valuable to them and then seek the advice and counsel of qualified professionals to implement a plan to protect that valuable information.


STEVE CZERNIAK – Mr. Czerniak retired after a successful career that culminated in fifteen years of experience as an internal consultant and “change agent.”  He is currently an Expert-in-Residence at the Macomb-Oakland University Incubator and a volunteer with the Troy Historic Village and Historical Society.

ROBIN LUCE-HERRMAN for BUTZEL LONG – Founded in 1854, Butzel Long is one of the oldest firms in the Midwest United States and has offices in Michigan, New York, Washington, D.C., and alliance offices in Mexico and China.  Since our inception, we have played a prominent role in the development and growth of many industries in Michigan. Our firm has over 3,000 geographically diverse clients that are active in national and international markets. These clients come from many sectors, including advertising, automotive, banking and financial services, construction, energy, healthy care, insurance, manufacturing, media, pharmaceuticals, professional services, publishing, real estate, retail and wholesale distribution, technology, transportation, and utilities.

REFERENCES:  1); 2); 3)

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