Every business has ideas it has developed to do things more efficiently. It may be that a business owner has come up with a way to produce a product in a manner competitors cannot copy. Better yet, the owner may have devised a variation on an existing product that makes it more durable in the marketplace. The creation of a business customer list is another example of a valuable development. These ideas or innovations are important to business success, providing competitive advantage over business rivals.

But how can ideas be protected? They first must be tangible and able to be seen, read, touched or in some other physical form. If a business owner has no way to protect these new ideas, then chances are they will never see the light of day and the rest of society will not benefit from these new opportunities. There are four legal ways to protect your idea: patent, copyright, trade secret and trademark.

The first method — via patent — is the most common. Here the inventor files a disclosure on the invention with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ( This office reviews the idea and is responsible for making sure it can be patented. There are three types of potential patents — utility, design or plant patents.

  • With a utility patent, you obtain protection on how a product is used and works.
  • A design patent pertains only to the way the product looks.
  • A plant patent aims to protect the invention or discovery of new plant species. There are some types of plant creation that are not covered, so make sure you check into the possibility if you invent some new types of plants.

The second type of protection is a copyright. These protection devices are also managed by the federal government, through the Library of Congress ( This method protects an author’s rights to original creative works. An interesting website with information on copyright is, which includes an article on the top 10 myths on the topic.

Next, we have trade secrets, which are handled entirely differently. They are not protected through federal registration, but through the legal system on all levels — federal, state and local. Some factors that determine whether your idea really is a trade secret are:

  1. How many people outside the business know the secret (hopefully none)
  2. How many people within the business know it (hopefully few)
  3. How it is to be safeguarded
  4. How important it would be to competitors
  5. How much it cost to create this idea

If you want to protect information, you should keep in mind those five factors in order to demonstrate to a court that you are serious about your idea. As you can see, a trade secret deals with business operations and not information dealing with payroll, for example.

The final method of protecting your idea is through a trademark. This protection technique is registered at the state level. Here you are dealing with a recognizable sign, design or expression that clearly identifies the product or service of a particular company, such as the Coca-Cola trademark for Coke. Trademarks go as far back as the Roman Empire, where blacksmiths would mark their swords.

So even if you are a small business, you can gain protection for your creative ideas.