Patents. A utility patent protects the functional and structural aspects of an invention. In order to secure a patent, the invention must be new, novel, and non-obvious. New, original, and ornamental designs for an article of manufacture can also be patented in the US. Once a patent is granted by the US Patent Office (USPTO), the patent owner has the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, and importing the invention or design in the US for a period of 20 years from the application filing date. A foreign company doing business in the US may not infringe the patent rights of a US company. If the patent owner believes its patent rights are being violated, the owner can bring an infringement action in federal court and seek damages and an injunction.
Trademarks. Trademark rights in the US are based on the use in commerce of a word, name, symbol, or combination thereof which the public sees as indicating the source of goods or services. Federal protection for a trademark is secured by registering the trademark with the USPTO. A registered trademark holder can sue competitors whose marks deceive or confuse customers or dilute the value of the registered owner’s brand. Trademark owners may also register their mark at the state level, but state registration confers fewer rights than federal registration. Foreign companies should consider seeking trademark protection for company and product names by registering with the USPTO to avoid challenges to their name later.
Copyrights. US copyright law gives the author of a work exclusive right in the work for the life of author plus seventy years (for works created on or after January 1, 1978). Copyright protection is available for literary, musical, architectural, artistic, graphic, sound recordings and other works that are written down or otherwise fixed in a tangible medium. Copyright protection is automatically secured when the author creates the work—registration is not required for protection. This protection applies to unpublished works regardless of the nationality or domicile of the author.
Trade Secrets. A trade secret is any information that adds value to a business or provides a competitive advantage to the owner because the information is not known by others. For example, a trade secret could be a formula, a device, a compilation of data, or a manufacturing technique. Trade secrets are broadly protected by state law in all 50 states. Trade secrets are also protected under federal law as of the May 2016 passage of the Defend Trade Secrets Act. The owner must make reasonable efforts to maintain the secret for continued protection. Trade secret law can protect intellectual property that is not patentable but is crucial to a company’s operations or product. Companies often require that employees sign agreements to protect trade secrets.
The most common fact pattern I have seen for litigation involving my clients are suits for theft of trade secrets, typically by a departing employee.Last modified: April 21, 2022