HOW DO I PROTECT THEE? -- LET ME COUNT THE WAYS
For those of you who are intellectual property enthusiasts (and, after all, who isn't?), the subject of this discussion will be no less than thrilling (who is this guy, anyway?). For the rest of you normal, sensible, down to earth folks, this discussion is intended as a brief primer on four of the most common forms of protection available. After thoughtful consideration of those forms of protection, on a preliminary basis you should be able to identify their potential availability.
Patent protection is available for the functional aspect of any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof; any new external and ornamental design for an article of manufacture where the design is nonfunctional, is part of, and is not removable from the article; and any asexually-reproduced plant. In the category of "utility" patents, we would protect inventions such as machines, electronic circuits, certain types of computer programs, chemical compounds, manufacturing processes, and genetically altered animals. Falling within the realm of "design" patents would be such items as bottles, computer cases, jewelry, tire tread designs, buildings or other structures, items of apparel, furniture, and tools. Lastly, "plant" patents are available to protect non-naturally occurring plants.
Trademark protection is available for any symbol, sign, word, sound, design, device, shape, or mark which is used to identify a product, service, or its source.
Copyright protection is available for any book, poem, speech, recording, computer program, work of art (statue, painting, cartoon, label), musical work, dramatic work, pantomime and choreographic work, photograph, graphic work, motion picture, videotape, map, game board, game instructions, jewelry, translations, and other "forms of expression" which can be communicated to another person.
Trade secret protection is available for any information which produces a business advantage or is commercially useful (e.g., formulae, techniques, know-how, designs, materials, processes) but which is not generally known to others.
While all of the above have an underlying mental creation, it is important to remember that ideas themselves are not what is protected -- it is the form of embodiment of the idea that is entitled to intellectual property protection.
How you go about protecting items which fall within each of these categories varies considerably. For example, in order to obtain patent protection, a patent application must be filed and approved after a lengthy examination process.
Trademark rights are generally established by using the mark in commerce, and registering the mark as soon as possible with the state or, in the case of a mark used in interstate commerce, with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
An odd characteristic about copyright protection is that it is automatic. The protection begins at the moment an idea is converted into a form of expression (e.g., a writing, clip art, etc.) that can be communicated to another person with or without the aid of a machine or other device. While copyright protection is automatic, however, there are certain benefits of obtaining copyright registration. First of all, registration is a prerequisite to bringing a lawsuit against someone for copyright infringement. Second, if you register a copyright no later than 3-months after publication of the work or obtain your registration prior to infringement, you will be entitled to elect between actual damages (the harm actually inflicted by the infringer) and statutory damages plus attorneys fees if you win the suit.