If you’ve ever seen a new product advertised and said, “I’ve thought of that very same thing! Why didn’t I pursue it?” you know the importance of protecting your ideas. No matter how terrific your idea is, if you don’t protect it and make it exclusively your own, someone else just might beat you to the market.

In business, ideas are often property. They are the seeds for inventions, which require knowledge, time, money and effort to create. And transforming an invention into an innovation, a new product accepted by the marketplace, takes a great deal of effort – and a bit of luck.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of inventors and innovators file for protection under U.S. patent, trademark, and copyright laws.

The three entities are defined as follows:

  1. Patent – The exclusive right granted by a government to an inventor to manufacture, use, or sell an invention for a certain number of years.
  2. Trademark – Any name, symbol, figure, letter, word, or mark adopted and used by a manufacturer or merchant in order to designate his or her goods and to distinguish them from those manufactured or sold by others.
  3. Copyright – The exclusive right to make copies, license, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or artistic work, whether printed, audio, video, etc.

It can be difficult to decide which of the three is most appropriate for your particular invention. One single product or service may require a patent, a trademark, and copyright, each category protecting a distinct aspect of the creative work or expression.

Patents, copyrights, and trademarks, as well as know-how or trade secrets, are often collectively referred to as intellectual property. Many firms possess intellectual property without even being aware of it, or of the need to take measures to protect it. If you have formulas or processes that are specific to your business, you should take the steps to protect them. Where would Coke and Pepsi be if they hadn’t taken steps to patent their secret formulas, trademark their logos, and copyright their advertising slogans?

It’s important to realize that simply having intellectual property is not enough to ensure success. Securing a patent for your product won’t guarantee that it will be embraced by consumers. Before you spend thousands of dollars to obtain exclusive rights to your invention, do the research to make sure that it’s something the market actually wants.

There are several resources you can consult for additional information on protecting your ideas. For information on applying for a patent, click here. You’ll find answers to your questions about trademarks here. The U.S. Copyright Office provides information on all aspects of copyright law.