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4 Types of Intellectual Property Protection

February 09, 2021
Four types of intellectual property - copyright, patent, trademark and trade secret

Which of the following are the four key forms of intellectual property protection that you need to know about?

When weighing the differences between trade secret vs. patent or trademark vs. copyright, it’s important to understand that the practice of IP law is broad. These four intellectual property protections impact a number of different industries. This is why lawyers with experience are being recruited at start-ups, global companies and every organization in between.

Cardozo School of Law has been a leader in IP law from its start, so below, we’ve highlighted the differences between the four types of intellectual property protection.


This type of protection covers “original works of authorship” Artistic works such as music, films, writings, and even architecture fall under this umbrella. Specifically, the Copyright Act gives an author ownership of their creative work as well as reproductions, distribution, performance, display, duplication and more.1

This type of protection does not necessarily require filing, and the work does not even need to be actually published yet either. However, filing an official copyright provides additional protections for the creator, including financial recourse if their copyright is infringed. Registration is done through the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.

The length of copyright varies as well, depending on whether the work was published and the exact date of publication. If published after 1978, it can last for 70 years after the author’s death, or if it's an anonymous work, 95 years after its first publication or 120 years from its creation, whichever is first.


Unlike copyright law, which covers what we consider more creative or artistic works, patents protect discoveries and inventions. These innovations can include new drugs by pharmaceutical companies, software programs or machines from small tech start-ups, and much more. Patents offer protection for a shorter period of time, usually 20 years.2 During that time, the patent holder essentially has a monopoly on using their invention. The idea behind this protection is to encourage innovation in companies and recognize that a significant amount of time, money, and commitment went into creating something new.

There are three types of patents in the U.S. Utility patents are given to inventors who discover a new process, machine, or other useful improvement. The other two, design patents and plant patents, are a little more obvious: covering inventions in design and varieties of plants, respectively.

Unlike copyright protections though, if a patent is not filed, there is no protection for the invention. Registering a patent can be a complex and challenging process, so most inventors choose to work with a patent or intellectual property law lawyer throughout this process. Also, unlike copyright protections, patents are registered through the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which sits in the Department of Commerce.


Trademark is about protecting the branding, logos, and phrases that identify and organization or the source of a product. This can be a company name, tagline, or a symbol that shows or indicates where a product is from.3 The term service mark often comes up when we talk about trademarks. Technically, service mark refers to protecting a service being offered by a company, not the product. However, usually trademark is used as an umbrella term, implying both.

The goal of trademarks is to help protect consumers from being misled. That means it offers protection against its branding being used by another organization within its line of business or a related business. Similarities can be similar looks or designs, similar sounds, design elements, and more. Like copyright protections, trademarks do not need to be registered, but when they are, it can provide additional protections for its owner.

It’s important to understand that a trademark protection does nothing to protect the good or service itself. It’s designed to prevent confusion. Also like patents, trademarks are registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. When pursuing a trademark, it’s recommended to start early to be sure you’re developing branding that’s strong creatively and in the legal sense.

Trade Secret

Trade secrets are defined by three elements according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A trade secret:

  • “is information that has either actual or potential independent economic value by virtue of not being generally known,
  • has value to others who cannot legitimately obtain the information, and
  • is subject to reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy.”4

The information being protected must meet all three of these requirements. This protection is seen as complementing patent protections. To receive a patent, the inventor must give specific details about their invention or innovation, but the goal of a trade secret is to protect those specifics and processes. While patent protection will eventually expire, there is no limitation on how long a trade secret can be protected.

Navigating Each Intellectual Property Protection

Copyright, patent, trademark, and trade secret protections are very different, but each of them is complex in their own right. They’re important to many different companies in many types of industries. From tech start-ups to independent filmmakers to Fortune 500s, intellectual property protections are a critical part of doing business. The online intellectual property law program at Cardozo School of Law is built to prepare lawyers with the skills to enter any industry. Learn more about the curriculum in our Online LL.M. in Intellectual Property degree and see how it can impact your legal career.

  1. Retrieved on January 28, 2021, from copyright.gov/what-is-copyright.
  2. Retrieved on January 28, 2021, from uspto.gov/patents/basics.
  3. Retrieved on January 28, 2021, from uspto.gov/trademarks/basics.
  4. Retrieved on January 28, 2021, from uspto.gov/ip-policy/trade-secret-policy.