To encourage the creation of valuable ideas, and protect them from being stolen, the U.S. legal system adopted the concept of intellectual property.

The four key classes of intellectual property are:


A grant issued by the federal government giving an inventor the right to exclude others from making, having made, using, leasing, offering to sell, selling, or importing an invention in the United States. A patent, however, does not necessarily guarantee inventors the right to make, use or sell their inventions; in some cases, utilizing a patented invention depends on another person's prior, unexplored patent. Violating patent rights is known as infringement and can be litigated. Patent infringement occurs when one violates each element of at least one claim in a patent.

Trademark/™ ®

A non-functional word, logo, slogan, symbol, design—or any combination of these—that distinguishes a product or service. Essentially brand names, trademarks promote competition by giving products corporate identity and marketing leverage. Trademarks do not need to be registered, but federal registration can help to protect the mark legally.


A right that protects original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyrights can include published and unpublished works—literary, dramatic, musical and dance compositions, films, photographs, audiovisual works, paintings, sculpture, and other visual works of art, as well as computer programs—from being copied. Copyright protects the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves, and gives their authors exclusive rights to reproduce the copyrighted material.

Trade Secret

A formula, pattern, manufacturing process, method of doing business, or technical know-how that gives its holder a competitive advantage. Trade secrets cover a wide spectrum of information, including chemical compounds, machine patterns, customer lists and software. No federal law protecting trade secrets exists; legal definitions vary from state to state so inventors should make careful note of the requirements depending on the location.

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The Inventor Handbook is written as a preliminary guide for inventors and where legal rights are concerned, the reader should consult a qualified attorney.