FULMER | MAY | STUCKEY Alabama Attorneys can help if you need professional and expert legal assistance regarding intellectual property law. Let’s find out more about this tricky and challenging area of the law and how we can help you, and it doesn’t matter how difficult or complicated your situation may be. As an Alabama attorney firm based in Birmingham, FULMER | MAY | STUCKEY understands how important it is to you as a creative professional or organization to protect your intellectual property. We understand that intellectual property is quite literally the lifeblood of your operation. Our firm of highly experienced Birmingham, Alabama lawyers has specialized training in the area of intellectual property law, and our IP attorneys are fully versed and up to date in this ever-changing area of law.

We have the knowledge and experience you need to handle issues relating to all forms of intellectual property. The most common types of intellectual property are trademarks, patents, copyrights and trade secrets. Before we discuss the different areas of intellectual property law, let’s look at what intellectual property is.


What is Intellectual Property?

As you may already know, intellectual property is a special type of property that includes both tangible, physical creations of human intellect and those that are intangible and do not necessarily have much in the way of a physical form. There are exclusivity rights for these properties that are legally granted.

Assets that can be assigned the designation of IP or intellectual property include:

  • Symbols
  • Phrases
  • Designs
  • Inventions
  • Discoveries
  • Artistic works
  • Other similar things


Understanding the Different Types of Recognized Intellectual Property

Intellectual property is given very similar protective rights as physical property. Therefore, stealing intellectual property is regulated at a federal level. With intellectual property protection in place, the owner has the sole and exclusive rights to make and create, use and apply, and even distribute their work. It gives the owners a temporary degree of monopoly over their idea. However, there’s one exception. With the type of IP known as trade secrets, owners need to disclose the process involved and the original works to both the government and the general public. Depending on what the work involves, intellectual property is classified as being one of the four main types of IP.

The four main types of intellectual property are:

  • Patents
  • Trademarks
  • Copyrights
  • Trade Secrets



Patents are a form of intellectual property that provides protection for novel processes, original designs, and inventions. A patent can only be successfully granted to an invention if it’s useful, non-obvious, and completely fresh and new. With patents, the owner has exclusive rights to stop competitors and other companies/inventors and businesses from creating, manufacturing, using or even selling the property the patent applies to in the US. Furthermore, a patent also provides protection for the intellectual property in question regarding the importation of properties that are so similar that they would be considered an imitation. Most patents provide protection that lasts for 20 years, with the main exception being design patents providing protection of only 14 years. As part of qualifying for the kind of protection a patent offers the owner and their IP, they are obliged to give full public disclosure of their work. To understand whether a patent is an appropriate form of protection for your intellectual property, let’s look at the main types of patents issued by the Patent and Trademark Office in the US.


Most Common Types of Patents Issued

There are at least six different kinds of patents issued by the USPTO, but these three are considered the most common. They are:

  • Utility Patents
  • Design Patents
  • Plant Patents


Utility Patents

Utility patents account for about 90% of the patents issued by the USPTO. These patents protect the functional or utility aspects and parts of an invention. Although that seems like a broad definition, it can cover anything manufactured for a specific and useful purpose or function, such as:

  • Compositions
  • Methods
  • Processes
  • Machines
  • Etc.

To clear things up, what’s described as useful by the USPTO refers to anything with an easily identifiable use, capability and benefit. Utility patents are also issued for improvements and updates made to inventions that fit the criteria outlined above. Like other patents, reviewers look at the invention and its functions to assess whether it’s specific and not obvious or novel. However, for utility patents, the function of the invention doesn’t need to be instantly recognizable.


Design Patents

In the same way, utility patents provide protection for the function or utility of a specific product or invention, design patents provide protection for the visual appearance.

They can be issued to protect any of the following:

  • General Ornamentation
  • Shape
  • Design
  • Appearance

In order to be issued a design patent, an invention or product needs to be non-functional, or it would require a utility patent.  Similar to utility patents, design patents are only issued to inventions and products with an appearance that’s not obvious, specific, and completely new. To be clear, a design patent only covers the aesthetics of a product or invention. Therefore, if the aesthetics, as well as the function, require protection, then both a design and utility patent would have to be applied for. A simple sketch and summary description of the appearance of the product are submitted with the application.


Plant Patents

Plant patents are the rarest of the three main patent types. For instance, in 1948, 18 years after the introduction of plant patents, only 750 had been issued. Curiously, half of those were issued for different kinds of roses. Plant patents are given to either the invention or discovery of plants that are reproduced asexually.



Trademarks are a form of intellectual property that refers to a symbol, word or group of words that identifies and represents a brand or product.  In order to successfully qualify for the protection of a trademark, there are important criteria it needs to meet. The assets you are looking to protect with a trademark must be distinctive enough. It must stand out and be easy to differentiate and distinguish your services and goods from those offered by competitors and other companies or organizations.

Trademarks give the rights of exclusivity to holders/owners. Here in Alabama, it’s The USPTO or US Patent and Trademark Office, just as it is throughout the rest of the country. However, it comes down to the owner’s responsibility to determine when infringements have taken place and prosecute those infringements. The good thing is, that if the holder has followed the proper procedure with due diligence and has filed the appropriate documents and maintenance fees, the protection offered by a trademark remains in place indefinitely.



Copyrights are interesting because they provide protection for expressions of ideas. These expressions can take various forms such as, but are restricted solely to these:

  • Sculptural art
  • Graphic art
  • Pictorial art
  • Sound recordings
  • Motion pictures
  • Dramatic works
  • Musical works
  • Literary works
  • Computer programs and software

Copyrights grant the holder exclusive rights to make copies, modifications, distributions, performances, and displays of the work considered to be this form of IP. Generally, the length of time that a copyright lasts is the lifetime of the creator plus an additional 70 years. However, there are various exceptions to this rule that can change the amount of time the copyright remains in place.


Trade Secrets

One of the most interesting types of intellectual property is definitely trade secrets. Trade secrets are undisclosed pieces of information of any kind that provide a company, organization, manufacturer, or other business a creative and competitive edge over their rivals. When dealing with trade secrets, you must take action to ensure they remain a secret. If appropriate measures are not in place to keep it a secret, it can no longer be considered as such. All of the other types of IP we’ve discussed are assigned and protected by the US government.

Trade secrets are the only intellectual property where the holder or owner has the right to keep them protected and private. Rather than granting trade secrets, the US regulates any infringements if claims of misappropriation have been filed. Trade secrets can essentially remain secret indefinitely until they have been disclosed to the general public. There are many different ways that trade secrets are protected. The most common method of protection is by using a non-disclosure agreement, also more commonly known as an NDA.