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How to Protect Intellectual Property From Your Competitors

Gavel sitting on top of an open book, with stacks of books on either side
When you own a business, you need to protect yourself against theft. But people don't just steal your equipment and money, intangibles like your ideas and trade secrets can be even more valuable. Here are some things to consider on how to protect intellectual property.


A trademark could protect a symbol, word, phrase or design associated with your business. For example, this could apply if you create a slogan or design a logo for your business card and brochures. With a trademark, you can prevent other businesses from using these ideas. However, trademark protection will not apply if your idea violates or infringes on someone else's trademark.

You do not actually have to apply for a trademark. The idea is considered yours once you start using it for your business. You can use the symbol TM to show other businesses you consider the idea trademarked and they can't use it.

For more protection, you could register your trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This confirms that the idea is legally yours, providing protection nationwide.


Copyrights apply to creative works like music, videos and books. The legal protection for copyrights works the same as it does with trademarks. You automatically get a copyright as soon as you create something, assuming you are not violating or infringing on someone else's copyright. If you want more protection, you can register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office.


Patents are the last way to register your intellectual property and cover inventions. This could be the creation of a new machine, product, or process — as well as a useful improvement to existing inventions.

You must apply for a patent with the USPTO. You don't automatically get protection like you do with a copyright or trademark. The USPTO will review your idea and if they approve it as an invention, you'll receive protection for 20 years. During this time, other companies are not able to use your invention without your permission.

The patent process is quite complicated and it is highly recommended you work with a patent lawyer when you apply.

Trade Secrets

A trade secret is something you use for your business that is confidential and gives you an edge over your competitors. This could be a special technique, process, formula or method that helps you handle your work more effectively than similar businesses.

Trade secrets are a little more difficult to protect. If someone steals your secret illegally, you could sue them — but this can be difficult to prove in court. If someone discovers your secret because they figured it out on their own or you accidentally revealed the information, you don't have any legal recourse to stop them from using your idea.

If you have a trade secret, you must be very careful not to reveal the information. Once again, this is something you should discuss with a lawyer. Don't assume your trade secrets are protected before meeting with a professional.

Non-Disclosure Agreements

If you're worried about your employees revealing a trade secret or other confidential information, you could have them sign a non-disclosure agreement. By signing the contract, the employee promises not to reveal the information listed in the document. If they do, you can sue them for damages. This is a simple and useful way to prevent trade secrets from leaking out.

Non-Compete Agreement

A non-compete agreement further ensures your employees protect your trade secrets. By signing this contract, employees agree not to work for a competing business for a set amount of time, such as three years. The agreement outlines what counts as a competitor, as well as geographical limits — for instance, the employee cannot work for a competing business within 100 miles of your business.

By using these strategies and working with the right legal professional to learn how to protect intellectual property, you can keep your valuable ideas safe.

However, the broader you make your agreement, the harder it will be to enforce. The courts reject non-compete agreements that are too strict. For example, if you say employees can't work for any construction firm nationwide after working with you, the agreement will likely be rejected if taken to court. You are better off saying employees can't work for another contractor within 20 miles of your business.

The rules for non-compete agreement also change depending on the state where your business is located. For example, Californian courts rejects most non-compete agreements while Utah prohibits non-compete agreements from lasting more than one year. You should work with an attorney to design your agreements. Otherwise, you might discover they are unenforceable after an employee challenges them in court.