There are different types of intellectual property, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, and mask works.


Patents grant the inventor the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering to sell and importing the invention. Patents are territorial rights and only offer protection in a defined territory. In the United States, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) processes patent applications and awards patents.

There are three types of U.S. patents:

  • Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new, useful, and non-obvious process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new, useful, and non-obvious improvements.
  • Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.
  • Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.

Length of Patent Protection

Patent Type

Patent Protection Time

Utility Patent

Protected 20 years from date of filing, subject to payment of maintenance fees

Plant Patent

Protected 20 years from date of filing

Design Patent

Protected 14 years from date of grant


A copyright grants an author the exclusive right to publish, reproduce, distribute, sell, perform, or display an original and fixed work. An original work is defined as independently created with minimal creativity. A fixed work is defined as a tangible form of expression. Some examples of works that can be copyrighted are books, photos, music, films, study guides, technical drawings, maps, and computer programs. Copyrights are territorial, and copyrights in the United States are granted by the U.S. Copyright Office.

Copyright protection term length depends on several factors, including whether it has been published and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors.


A trademark is a word, name, slogan, symbol, or device that is used in trade to indicate the source of goods and to distinguish them from the goods of others. Trademarks are territorial, and are registered with the USPTO in the United States. Registered trademarks grant the right to exclusive use.
Registered trademarks are valid as long as the business uses it in commerce and maintains the necessary documents and fees to renew the trademark between years 5 and 6 and every 10th anniversary of its registration.

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets include information such as a formula, pattern, process, or device that is not generally known, which a company keeps secret for its own advantage. Trade secrets are protected without a formal registration; however, holders of the information typically use confidentiality agreements for employees and business partners. Consequently, a trade secret can be protected for an unlimited period of time.

Mask Works

Mask works are a type of intellectual property for the design of semiconductor chips. The United States Congress established the intellectual property protection of mask works under the Semiconductor Chip Protection Act of 1984. Mask works are registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, but are not protected by copyright law. Mask works are protected for ten years if registration occurs within the first 2 years from the date of commercial exploitation. The mask work owner receives exclusive rights to reproduce, import, and distribute the mask work.