You may not be aware of it, but every forging operation – in fact, every business – has some form of intellectual property. Yet, for many, intellectual-property law is a confusing mass of regulations and definitions.

Unique forging processes, email lists, logos, sales processes and even your website domain are intellectual property. These assets become important when evaluating your business for investors, banks and creditors. Intellectual property may not be the most exciting component of the forging business, but knowing your intellectual property can help your business thrive; not knowing it can lead to fines, lawsuits and expensive litigation.

Intellectual property is generally considered to have four major categories. Knowing the differences between the categories and their scope of protection can help you foster innovation at your forging business, give you heightened awareness of how to protect your intellectual property and help you avoid giving it away.

Patents are an incentive from a governing body (usually a nation’s patent office) to create an environment conducive for scientific advancement. In exchange for fully explaining how an invention is practiced, the inventor may be granted the right to exclude others from that practice. This exchange of information is generally considered to contribute to our collective knowledge and spur others to invent based on previously disclosed inventions. Patents are typically valid for up to 20 years from the original filing date. Under U.S. law, the patent application must be directed to one or more of a process (method of steps), a machine (a concrete object including parts), a “manufacture” (an article produced from materials by giving to these materials new forms, qualities, properties or combinations), or a composition of matter. For forging operations, this could include a new metallic alloy, a forging made from that alloy, a method of making that alloy or a novel forging machine.

Trademarks are viewed as source indicators for a product or service. For example, the aisle of a supermarket may contain a canned or bottled beverage bearing a red label with a white flowing ribbon design. Many would know exactly who created that beverage. If we have sampled that product before, we likely have an expectation of the quality of the beverage. This serves a great purpose to consumers who can easily learn what brands they like simply through trademarks. This association incentivizes providers of goods and services to produce quality, reliable products. Trademarks can be registered for words, phrases, logos or even colors where those items represent a particular source for the goods or services. For example, you may trademark your company name, logo or a tradename for a forging lubricant. However, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will often refuse trademark registrations if there are other marks in the same general category of business and there is a likelihood of confusion between an applied-for mark and an existing mark. Trademarks can be renewed indefinitely (if government fees are paid in regular intervals) given that the mark remains in use according to the original application.

Copyrights are granted by a division of the U.S. Library of Congress and provide rights to the author(s) of particular works to prevent copying. Some common examples of protected material include songs, movie scripts, books and architectural designs. In the forging industry, you may obtain a federal copyright for a catalog or a set of directions for using a product. The current available maximum term for a copyright is the life of the author plus 70 years. Like trademarks, this maximum term is available when government fees are regularly paid. Infringement of a copyright requires someone to create a “copy” of a protected (copyrighted) work that is “substantially similar” to the original version. Like patents, copyrights provide rights to an author to exclude others in exchange for advancement of society.

Trade secrets are typically of the same subject matter as patents. However, trade secrets are purposely not divulged to anyone outside a trusted circle. In this way, the inventor or business is trying to gain perpetual protection for the invention without having to disclose the invention as would be typical in a patent application. By holding the secret, the holder intends to gain the benefit of being the only practitioner to use the invention. There are plenty of trade secrets in the forging industry, such as methods of running a forging process and methods of finishing forgings.

It is important to remember that protection for a particular part of intellectual property typically does not cross boundaries between these four categories, and these terms are not interchangeable.