The intangible assets of a business include not only its trade name and other identifying trade devices but also its inventions, creative works, and artistic efforts. Broadly defined as trade secrets, this body of commercial information may consist of any formula, pattern, process, program, tool, technique, mechanism, or compound that provides a business with the opportunity to gain an advantage over a competitor. Although a trade secret is not patented or copyrighted, the law of unfair competition awards individuals a property right in any valuable trade information they discover and attempt to keep secret through reasonable steps
The owner of a trade secret is entitled to its exclusive use and enjoyment. A trade secret is valuable not only because it enables a company to gain advantage over a competitor, but also because it may be sold or licensed like any other property right. On the other hand, commercial information that is revealed to the public, or at least to a competitor, retains limited commercial value. Consequently, courts vigilantly protect trade secrets from disclosure, appropriation, and theft. Businesses may be held liable for any economic injuries that result from their theft of a competitor’s trade secret, as may other opportunistic members of the general public. Employees may be held liable for disclosing their employer’s trade secrets, even if the disclosure occurs after the employment relationship has ended.
Valuable business information that is disclosed to the public may still be protected from infringement by copyright and patent law. Copyright law gives individuals and businesses the exclusive rights to any original works they author, including movies, books, musical scores, sound recordings, dramatic creations, and pantomimes. Patents give individuals and businesses the exclusive rights to make, use, and sell specific types of inventions, such as mechanical devices, manufacturing processes, chemical formulas, and electrical equipment. Federal law grants these exclusive rights in exchange for full public disclosure of an original work or invention. The inventor or author receives complete legal protection for his or her intellectual efforts, while the public obtains valuable information that can be used to make life easier, healthier, or more pleasant.
Like the law of trade secrets, patent and copyright law offers protection to individuals and businesses who have invested considerable resources in creating something useful or valuable and who wish to exploit that investment commercially. Unlike trade secrets, which may be protected indefinitely, patents and copyrights are granted protection only for a finite period of time. Applications for copyrights are governed by the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C.A. section 409, while patent applications are governed by the Patent Act, 35 U.S.C.A. section 111.