The Basics of IP Law: Copyrights, Patents, Trademarks and Trade Secrets

You’ve probably heard the terms “copyright,” “patent,” “trademark,” and “trade secrets,” especially if you work in a creative, innovative, or business-related field. These terms fall under the larger umbrella of Intellectual Property law (often shortened to “IP”). The idea behind IP law is to protect both the rights of those who create and develop new ideas and to protect the public from being misled or confused. Each area of IP law has its own nuance and set of rules, and we talk about some of those in other posts. Here, we’ve provided a brief introduction to the four major areas of intellectual property law below., We invite you to contact our knowledgeable IP attorneys to discuss your specific needs.

Copyright Law

Copyright law offers protection for original works of authorship or artistic expression. The most common examples are writings, songs, and paintings, but copyright protection extends beyond the obvious to include such works as architectural drawings and software. Those in the fields of publishing, fine arts, entertainment, and computer software design often rely on copyright laws to protect their works from others who may attempt to copy, display or otherwise use their work without their permission. Any creative work is technically copyrighted as soon as you create it, but a copyright has to be registered with the United States Copyright Office before you can enforce those rights in court. Should you suspect that another party is infringing on your copyrighted work, or if you’ve been accused of copyright infringement, an intellectual property attorney can step in to help you understand what steps to take moving forward.

Patent Law

When you create a new invention, such as a novel product, design, or process, you can apply for a patent to protect this innovation from infringement. For an invention to be eligible for a patent, it must be useful, novel, and nonobvious. A patent will not be granted to an abstract idea; rather, you’ll have to include a complete description of the machine, process, or product you’ve created. When you successfully obtain a patent, you will enjoy exclusive rights for a period of time, after which your patented invention will become part of the public domain. We don’t practice patent law at Rubric, but if you have questions about this area of law or have an idea you might want to patent, we’re happy to help you find the right lawyer to help.

Trademark Law

When a company wants to increase brand awareness, it will use easily-identifiable symbols, slogans, or images to remind consumers about its available products. Companies use trademarks to distinguish their products and services. Consumers rely on trademarks to know what they are buying. Trademarks might consist of words or phrases — like Nike’s “Just Do It” or Apple’s “Think Different” — or logos — such as the Nike “swoosh” or the Apple, well, apple — or sometimes even colors — Best Buy’s distinctive blue and yellow or Target’s red. Often the mark will combine those elements into something that consumers can immediately connect to a product or service. You can apply for a trademark through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to help protect your image, slogan, or logo from infringement and dilution. You don’t have to have a registered trademark to protect your brand image, but it does offer additional tools.

Trade Secrets

Businesses often use specific processes, formulas, or designs unique to their company. For example, food and beverage companies likely want to protect their recipes from other companies, or else competitors could release the same product. The key to protecting these trade secrets is that you take reasonable steps to keep them, well, secret. An IP attorney can help you develop the protocols to keep your trade secrets confidential. And if someone breaches those protections, an IP attorney can also help enforce your rights under state or federal law.


If you need help registering a copyright, patent, or trademark, or if you have questions about an IP matter, reach out to the dedicated legal team at Rubric Legal LLC by calling our Minneapolis office today at (612) 465-0074.

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