What is Intellectual Property?
Intellectual property is typically divided into four major areas -- Patent, Copyright, Trademark, and Trade Secrets -- each of which provides different legal protection.
What do Patents do?
Patent law ensures protection to the inventor(s) of new and useful processes, machines, manufactured items, compositions of matter, or improvement thereon.
Essentially, federal patent law provides the owner of an issued patent with the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention that is "claimed" in the patent.
- In some cases, patent law provides protection beyond the literal wording of the claims in an issued patent.
- On the other hand, you may be able to obtain a patent on an improvement of someone else's idea (e.g., by showing that the system can be wireless). In this case your patent will give you exclusive rights to the improvement only, not to the underlying invention which may either belong to someone else if under patent protection or to no one in particular if part of the "public domain."
Patent protection is not automatic. Patents are issued by the government of a country and are geographically limited to the country where issued. The relevant agency in the U.S. is the United States Patent and Trademark Office ("USPTO"). A patent issued by the USPTO is valid for twenty years from the application filing date. After that the invention becomes "public domain" and belongs to no one in particular. See, USPTO homepage: http://www.uspto.gov 
What is a Copyright?
Copyright law protects original works created in a tangible format.
- Typical examples of works you may create that are copyrightable are books, journal articles, videos, other recordings, and computer software.
Federal copyright law provides the owner of the copyright with the exclusive right to copy, distribute, perform, and make derivative works.
Copyright protection, unlike the patent process, is automatic upon creation of a copyrightable work. In other words, if you could have registered your copyright with the United States Copyright Office, but chose not to do so, you still own the work. On the other hand, unlike the patent process, copyright registration is inexpensive and relatively simple. See, U.S. Copyright Office homepage: http://www.loc.gov/copyright 
- Copyright registration becomes necessary if you wish to file a legal action against someone who is infringing your copyright.
Copyright, like patent, is limited by time, but the term is much longer, lasting beyond your lifetime.
A copyright owner may license its rights to others.
What is a Trademark?
A trademark is a commercial gimmick used to identify a product (or service, called a "service mark"). Trademarks include words, names, symbols, and sounds, often with particular pitches, colors, or other defining characteristics that consumers come to associate with a product (e.g., due to successful advertising by the company, the phrase "Just do it," will conjure up for the average consumer positive images of Nike products).
Trademarks are like patents in that they are granted by the government, and they are like copyrights in that they can exist even if not actually registered. Trademarks are covered both by federal and by state law.
What is a Trade Secret?
A trade secret is a concept that derives competitive economic value in the marketplace from its very secrecy and which is deliberately maintained as confidential by its owner.
Typically, a concept that can be protected by trade secret can alternatively be protected by patent. It is an either/or decision though, since patent applications are eventually published and patented inventions eventually become public domain. A trade secret may be maintained indefinitely, but is only a trade secret for as long as it is kept entirely confidential.
- A prime example of a company choice to pursue trade secret rather than patenting is the Coca-Cola formula. By maintaining the formula as top secret, the Coca-Cola company has managed to control the formula indefinitely, whereas a patent on the formula would have expired long ago.