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Small businesses and entrepreneurs have several options for protecting their ideas. The most suitable type of protection will depend on the industry and on the idea.
Patents – U.S. patents are granted by the government and allow a patent owner to exclude others from making, selling, offering for sale, importing or exporting a claimed invention in the patent. The claims of the patent define the structure or method considered in the invention. Certain plants and designs can also be patented. The term of the patent typically ends 20 years after an application for the patent is filed with the patent office. After the patent application is filed, but before the application is granted, a patent is considered to be pending. During the pending portion of the process, the patent owner can notify others that a patent is pending, but he does not have the right to exclude others from his invention at that time. However, it is risky to infringe a pending patent because if the patent is granted, the owner of that patent could potentially claim damages that were accumulated while the patent was pending. Anyone faced with infringement on a pending patent should consult with a patent attorney.
Trademarks – A trademark protects words, names, or symbols that identify services or products. As long as a trademark is used, there may be no end to the life of the trademark.
Copyrights – Copyrights protect works of authorship. Software, websites, literature, music, pictures, films, and artwork may all be covered under a copyright. Copyrights may last for the entire life of an author and then 70 years after his or her death. Although not required, a copyright may be registered with the Library of Congress.
Mask Rights – Mask Rights are a form of protection for semiconductor chips.
Trade Secrets – Trade Secrets are different from other forms of protection in that they are not granted by the government, but are secrets that companies keep as inside information. Client lists, manufacturing tricks, ingredients, protocols, and software can all be protected by trade secrets. Trade secrets are designed to keep employees from giving company secrets to their competitors. Unlike patents, trademarks, and copyrights which are regulated by federal law, trade secrets are regulated by state law.
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