Intellectual property (IP) is an important topic for inventors and product designers. It’s how we make a living, after all—it’s how we protect our ideas.

You’re probably familiar with patents, trade secrets, and trademarks, but there’s a lot more to intellectual property than that. Patent infringement, protecting your IP rights—these can become sticky issues if you don’t have a handle on the legalities. Here’s a brief overview to get you started.

For starters, there are four classifications of intellectual property.

There are four categories of intellectual property: trademarks, trade secrets, patents, and copyrights. Here’s a brief definition of each, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (for more on these four types of intellectual property, see this post, Everything You Need to Know About Intellectual Property).

Trademarks are words, phrases, symbols, and/or designs that identify and distinguish the source of the goods of one party from those of others.

Trade secrets consist of information and can include a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique or process.

Patents are limited duration property rights relating to an invention.

Copyrights protect works of authorship, such as writings, music, and works of art that have been tangibly expressed.

While obtaining trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets are relatively simple processes, the patent process can be somewhat confusing. For some tips on how to go about getting a patent, read our post How to Patent Your Product Idea.

You can infringe upon someone’s patent (or they can infringe upon yours) without directly copying.

Patents come in two types: utility and design. Utility patents, as you’ve probably inferred, cover how a product works, is made, or how it’s used. Design patents, on the other hand, protect a product’s appearance. So even if you’re not copying a full product, you could still be infringing on someone else’s patent by using the same functioning mechanism, for example, in your invention.

The way around this is through licensing—if you wanted to use that mechanism, you’d pay the patent owner a licensing fee that would give you the right to include it in your product.

Infringement gets a little stickier in the software industry, where certain components become vital to a product’s performance—once Apple invented the iPhone, everyone had to jump on the smartphone wagon or be left miles in the dust. You’ve doubtless heard of some of the higher-profile squabbles over IP, like the infamous and endless lawsuit Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. According to Apple, Samsung infringed on many different Apple patents with its line of tablets and smartphones. Samsung, of course, disagreed.

Now, most of us aren’t inventing something as revolutionary as the smartphone. Nevertheless, the takeaway from this and other IP legal battles is: If you’re working on a high-demand design or product, or plan to sell your product widely, it pays to do your homework and get your product patented. That way, if someone does infringe upon it, you’ll at least have a legal leg to stand on if you take them to court.

The best way to make sure you’re not infringing is to do a patent search.

Before you hire that patent attorney and pull together the filing fee, you should consider doing a patent search to make sure you’re not inadvertently copying a part of someone else’s idea. This can sound more daunting than it actually is: because patents only last 20 years, you only need look back through the last 20 years of patents, not the entire history.

There are patent search professionals who can do this for you, but it’s quite possible to do on your own as well. You’d start by coming up with a list of terms to describe your invention, then enter them into the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s online search. From there, you can find patents for products that are similar to your own.

The world of intellectual property can be a confusing one to maneuver—but if you want to protect your rights and your products, it’s important to have some basic IP knowledge. If Pivot can help you with your product design, prototyping, manufacturing, or even setting up your business, let us know—contact us today!