Innovation Asset Blog

Choosing Your IP Protection: Patent, Trade Secret, Trademark, and Copyright

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You’ve got a newly developed asset to protect. The nature of that asset seems clear, but you want to employ the most complete protection possible in order to minimize competitive threats and loss of revenue.  Which protection is the right one?

The answer may not lie with just one form of protection,  but some combination, i.e., a “belt & suspenders” approach. Before discussing that, let’s review the main types of intellectual property.


Patents protect inventive ideas or processes. There are utility patents (by far the most common) which are for any “new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or a new and useful improvement thereof” (i.e., the manner in which something is used or how it works). There are also design patents which can protect the ornamental design aspects of an article of manufacture (i.e., the way something looks, like the shape of a smartphone, or the original Coke bottle). There are also plant patents. In general, patents allow you to exclude others from making, using or selling the covered invention for a period of 20 years from the date of application (15 years in the case of a design patent).

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are know-how, processes, formulas, procedures, data compilations, innovations, plans, metrics, customer lists, marketing & sales strategies and anything else that has actual or potential value by virtue of not being known by a competitor. There is no time limit for the legal protection of trade secrets. They can be perpetual so long as “reasonable care” is taken to protect them.


Trademarks can be words, phrases, symbols, sounds, smells and color schemes. They act as source identifiers for products and services. In other words, you want anyone looking at your mark to think of the product or service to which it relates – to think of your company. That’s what a strong brand does, and trademarks are the manner in which they are legally protected. Famous examples include the McDonald’s golden arches, the MGM lion roar, the Home Depot orange color scheme and of course the word Starbucks.


Copyrights are used to protect the original expression of ideas (as opposed to the ideas themselves), also known as “original works of authorship.” Materials eligible for copyright are often in a written form, like literature, brochures and web site copy. However, other media, such as audio recordings or visual performance arts, can also be protected via copyright.

Alone, each of these types of IP can provide a baseline of protection for the relevant asset.  Businesses have become increasingly savvy about overlapping these protections where multiple forms of protection are available.

The Belt and Suspenders Approach to IP Protection

According to research collected by The Innovation Policy Platform, there are few industries that rely on only one type of IP protection to maintain rights over products. Pharmaceuticals are a notable example, where drug formulas or the processes by which they’re manufactured are largely covered by patents. However, the research does make note of logo development for those drugs, which in turn require trademark protection if the pharmaceutical manufacturer wants to preserve their brand’s integrity.

One of the more common pairings of IP protection is between patents and trademarks. Because patents have a limited lifespan of (typically) 20 years, technologies or other products that are patent-protected will lose their exclusivity as soon as that time's up. To better defend against competitors in those scenarios, businesses will develop brand recognition and association with the patent and maintain continuous trademark protection.

A good example of this paired protection is Pfizer’s version of sildenafil, more commonly known by its brand name, Viagra. When the Viagra patent expires in 2020, it will nonetheless be difficult for competitors to rise above and take substantial market share from the incredible strength of the Viagra brand name.

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Maintaining Control of Varied IP Protection

In companies where the overlapping of IP protection is common, it can be difficult to keep track of it - which products have what protections? It’s important to know not just for defensive reasons, but to identify potential sources of additional licensing revenue. It’s also important to know if multiple protections are making sense or wasting money.

The solution is to leverage tools that organize and keep track of these interrelationships, as well as the different employees or outside attorneys responsible for their management. With IP management software like Decipher®, both the development and ongoing management of IP is easier and more efficient than ever.

Learn more about the insights that IP management tools provide to businesses trying to juggle a portfolio full of assets and related protections - click here to download a free guide!

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Peter Ackerman

Peter Ackerman

Founder & CEO, Innovation Asset Group, Inc.