What is the difference between patents and trade secrets?

Glenn W. Peterson

Protecting your intellectual property in California probably weighs heavily on your mind. Keeping others from using your inventions, ideas, written works, brand images and other proprietary information is made easier through protections offered by the federal government. Two of those protections are patents and trade secrets.

Ensuring you choose the right protection depends on many factors. The main one is what you are trying to protect. Patents and trade secrets cover different types of intellectual property, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization.

A patent is offered as protection for very specific inventions, including processes, designs, plants and machines. A trade secret protects information. This information may be something that could be patented. However, you may decide to forego the patent process, which can be lengthy and costly, for a trade secret, which does not involve a lengthy and pricey process.

You should weigh your options carefully if your idea or invention can qualify for both types of protection because there are pros and cons to each. Patents have a limited life. You can only hold a patent for a certain number of years after which anyone else can begin to freely use your invention. Trade secrets last as long as you keep the information secret. Once the secret becomes public, you lose all protection.

Trade secret protection is generally considered weaker than patent protection. It may not be as easy to protect your trade secret because of the requirement to keep it secret. In addition, someone could always figure out your information through legitimate methods and void your trade secret. Patent protection is fairly solid and enforceable in court. This information is only intended to educate and should not be interpreted as legal advice.