Intellectual property is an intangible asset that consists of human knowledge and ideas. Unlike assets, such as computers or your office, intellectual property is a collection of ideas and concepts.
There are only three ways to protect intellectual property: spatents, trademarks, or copyrights. A patent applies to a specific product design, whereas a trademark refers to a name, phrase or symbol, and a copyright to a written document. All three methods have limitations and there is no one perfect way to protect an idea.
Copyright protection gives the copyright holder the exclusive right to copy the work, modify it, and distribute or display the work publicly.
Ideas or concepts do not boast copyright protection. Copyright can protect the expression of the idea, but not the ideas themselves. For example, if someone asks you what a chair is, you get a picture of it. However, if you were to draw the chair you envisioned in your head or use words to describe that chair, it is an "expression" of the idea and that is what is protected by copyright.
Generally, the only protection for ideas and concepts is through trade secret law and/or confidentiality agreements, which offer a contractual remedy for abuse or disclosure of the idea.
A trademark is similar to a brand name. It refers to any words or symbols that represent a product to identify and distinguish it from other products in the marketplace. If a trademark word for example is "Rollerblades," then the trademark symbol would be the peacock used by NBC.
The (TM) mark may be given immediately next to your mark. The ? registration symbol may only be used when the mark is registered with the PTO. It is illegal to use this symbol with your mark before receiving an issued registration from the PTO. Trademark rights last forever if the company continues to use the mark to identify its goods or services.
Patents guard processes, methods, and inventions that are novel, non-obvious, and useful. If approved, a patent gives you a 20-year monopoly on selling, using, making or importing an invention into the United States. The first requirement for a patent is your work must be non-obvious. This means it must not be clear to a person having ordinary skill in the relevant art as it existed when the invention was made.
Secondly, your work must be novel. This means it must not be known or used by others in this country, described in a printed publication here or abroad, or in public use or for sale in this country more than one year earlier to the application for patent.
Thirdly your work must be useful. This means that it must have current, significant, beneficial use as process, machine, manufacture, and composition of matter or improvements to one of these.
Patent protection needs a full public disclosure of the work in brief and, therefore, precludes considering any trade secret security in the same work.