Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn
By J.D. Houvener
Patent Attorney and Founder

If you’re rolling out a big new venture or idea, you may hit just about every single category when it comes to intellectual property protection for startups. There’s a chance you’ll need a wide range of safeguards, from copyrights to trademarks and patents. Unfortunately, not many of these processes are user-friendly. With the right legal help, though, they’re a lot easier to navigate.

As a startup, the last thing you want to do is waste your runway time on fees for denied or incomplete applications. That’s why it’s so important for you to understand what you need and when you need it. We’ve pulled together a table to guide you through the standard intellectual property protection basics for startups, but keep in mind that nothing is written in stone. Your unique circumstances will affect your needs.

Types of Intellectual Property Protection For Startups

There are four basic categories of intellectual property protection, and in some cases, you’ll need all of them. Here are some of the common recommendations we make for helping out startups.

What you’re protecting What you’ll need
Branded assets

These are the items for marketing and identifying your brand. Some examples include:

  • Business names
  • Logos
  • Specific color schemes
  • Slogans

A trademark is issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and prevents others from using your branded assets in the US and its territories. If you do global business, it can be used as a jumping-off point to gain international protection.

A product with a novel function

This is a new, unique and useful idea that completes some sort of task, like:

  • Machines
  • Business processes
  • Biogenetic materials
  • Chemicals
Utility patent

A utility patent is designed to protect a proprietary idea and grant you exclusive use for 20 years from the application’s date. A patent is an asset in and of itself, as you have the opportunity to license or sell it to others in your industry.

A product with a novel design

This is a unique, useful, and new idea that’s strictly aesthetic. Common examples include:

  • Packaging
  • Proprietary typefaces
  • App interfaces
  • Clothing
Design patent

Design patents protect the way something looks and last for 15 years from the application date. It is common to have both a design and utility patent on complex items, like cellphones or patentable software.


Trademarks protect branded items like slogans, logos, and company names. They can apply to recipes if the recipe is inherently tied to the brand.

Trademarking is designed to protect your branded assets and overall image. As a result, a trademark won’t prevent someone from using your recipe, but it will keep them from using your unique name when selling or marketing products derived from it. It also goes hand-in-hand with copyright, in that you can’t copyright the name of a recipe collection, but you can trademark it.
Trade secret

A trade secret is an internal business matter. No US office registers them. Instead, the item stays secret for as long as your business manages to keep it so. Common items protected by trade secrets include:

  • Business strategies
  • Recipes
  • Algorithms
  • Formulas
Nondisclosure agreement

There’s a lot of overlap between patents and trade secrets, as often they can be used to protect the same thing. However, a trade secret provides an advantage as there’s no expiration date, causing some companies to opt for this. Trade secrets are usually protected by confidentiality policies and nondisclosure agreements that set penalities for sharing or unauthorized use of proprietary company information.

Proprietary company literature

Company literature is typically written specifically for your business or clients. This may include:

  • Handbooks
  • Website copy
  • Founder biographies
  • Proprietary code

A copyright exists from the moment you write something, though you may need to register it in the event you have to file a claim later. Even without a registration, you can still pursue a case if someone copies your work. It’s just best to be proactive if you are in an industry with a higher risk of plagiarism.

There are a lot of gray areas to consider as you evaluate your startup’s IP needs. For example, you may patent a piece of software, or you may only be able to copyright the code. This isn’t always clear at first glance. That’s why it’s usually in your best interest to consult with an attorney.

When to Seek out an Attorney

Many small business owners try to manage their intellectual property needs on their own but only wind up with a lot of rejections and wasted time and money. If any of the following apply, you’re best off working with an attorney:

  • You’re unclear on your needs: If you’re a novice to IP law or find that multiple types of protection may meet your needs, it’s best to work with an attorney to ensure you choose the right option.
  • You need a patent: Patents are the hardest segment of intellectual property law. They are lengthy, expensive, and very easy to mess up. If you believe you need a patent of any kind, whether it’s design or utility, then you’re best off working with an attorney.
  • You are, or want to go, global: US IP protection is the jumping-off point for most global applications. Ensuring your US application is flawless and still meets the needs of all your target countries will streamline your entry into new markets.
  • You’re concerned about conflicts: If your patent or trademark search has revealed potential conflicts, it’s best to get a legal opinion before you move forward. In some cases, you’ll find that the issue isn’t as serious as you initially thought. In others, you’ll need to reconsider your concept. It’s best to get that opinion from a legal expert before you move forward.

An attorney will usually be the best person to guide you through intellectual property protection for startups. They’ll help you understand what to prioritize and where to focus your efforts. That way, you can turn all those ideas into branded assets that will help propel you to success.

Bold Patents offers a detailed consultation on intellectual property protections for startups so you can make the right decisions. Visit our contact page or call 800-849-1913 to learn more.

About the Author
J.D. Houvener is a Registered USPTO Patent Attorney who has a strong interest in helping entrepreneurs and businesses thrive. J.D. leverages his technical background in engineering and experience in the aerospace industry to provide businesses with a unique perspective on their patent needs. He works with clients who are serious about investing in their intellectual assets and provides counsel on how to capitalize their patents in the market. If you have any questions regarding this article or patents in general, consider contacting J.D. at