Introduction to Intellectual Property: A U.S. Perspective

Introduction to Intellectual Property A U.S. Perspective


Welcome to the Stevens Law Group blog, where we provide insights into various legal aspects that impact innovators and businesses. Today, we delve into the realm of intellectual property (IP), focusing on patents and trade secrets. These two mechanisms are critical for protecting inventions under U.S. law. Understanding the distinctions and strategic advantages of each can help innovators make informed decisions about safeguarding their creations.

Intellectual Property Overview

In the United States, intellectual property is categorized into four main types: copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, and patents. This blog focuses on patents and trade secrets, the primary tools for protecting inventions.


A patent grants an inventor a time-limited monopoly on their invention in exchange for public disclosure of how to make and use it. To qualify for a patent, an invention must be useful, novel, and non-obvious. For example, inventions like new machinery, compositions of matter, or manufacturing processes can be patented. However, naturally occurring substances, abstract ideas, and certain business methods are not patent-eligible.

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets encompass information that confers a business advantage and remains unknown to others. To be protected, a trade secret must derive economic value from its secrecy and be subject to reasonable efforts to maintain its confidentiality. For example, the formula for Coca-Cola is a well-known trade secret.

Protecting Your Invention: Patents vs. Trade Secrets

Choosing between patent protection and trade secret protection involves strategic considerations. Patents require full disclosure and offer protection for a limited time (typically 20 years), while trade secrets can theoretically last indefinitely as long as they remain secret. And that’s the trick. Keeping trade secrets secret is not always easy.

Trade Secret Protection

Trade secrets are protected under state laws, with most states adopting some form of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA). Owners can take legal action against misappropriation through various claims, including breach of contract and trade secret misappropriation. Notable cases such as Lariscey v. U.S. and Aerospace America Inc. v. Abatement Technologies Inc. provide legal precedents for these disputes.

Patent Protection

Patents are governed by federal law, primarily codified in Title 35 of the United States Code. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) oversees the patent application process, which includes filing, examination, and issuance of patents. The landmark case Diamond v. Chakrabarty established that genetically engineered organisms could be patented, illustrating the broad scope of patentable inventions.

Key Considerations for Innovators

  • Patentability: Not all inventions are eligible for patents. For instance, recent rulings have excluded naturally occurring gene sequences and certain diagnostic methods from patent protection (Prometheus Labs. Inc. v. Mayo Collaborative Services).
  • Inventorship: Correctly identifying inventors is crucial. Joint inventorship allows multiple contributors to a patent, even if they did not work together or contribute equally. Incorrect inventorship can lead to invalidation of the patent, as seen in cases like Frank’s Casing Crew & Rental Tools v. PMR Technologies.


Deciding whether to protect an invention as a trade secret or to seek patent protection depends on various factors, including the nature of the invention, its market potential, and the strategic goals of the inventor. Both mechanisms have their own benefits and limitations. At Stevens Law Group, we are dedicated to helping you navigate these complex decisions to best protect your intellectual property.

Key References

  • Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA)
  • Lariscey v. U.S. (949 F.2d 1137, 1141) (Fed. Cir. 1991)
  • Aerospace America Inc. v. Abatement Technologies Inc. (738 F. Supp. 1061, 1072) (E.D. Mich. 1990)
  • Diamond v. Chakrabarty (447 U.S. 303) (1980)
  • Prometheus Labs. Inc. v. Mayo Collaborative Services (132 S. Ct. 1289) (2012)

For further details and legal support, please contact us at Stevens Law Group.

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