To encourage creation of valuable ideas, and protect them from being stolen, the U.S. legal system has four key classes of IP:
Patent: A grant issued by the federal government giving an inventor the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, or importing an invention in the United States. Patent infringement occurs when someone violates each element of at least one claim in a patent.
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Trademark: A word, logo, slogan, symbol, design or any combination that distinguishes a product or service. Essentially brand names, trademarks promote competition by giving products corporate identity and marketing leverage. Trademarks do not need to be registered, but federal registration helps protect the mark.
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Copyright: Protects original works of authorship or expression. Copyrights can include published and unpublished works -- literary, dramatic, musical and dance compositions, films, photographs, audiovisual works, paintings, sculpture, and other visual works of art, as well as computer programs -- from being copied. It protects the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves.
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Trade Secret: Any manufacturing process, method of doing business, or technical know-how that gives its holder a competitive advantage. A customer list can be considered a trade secret, as can chemical compounds, processes and software, as long as they are secret.
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