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Intellectual Property: Trademarks, Copyrights, Patents and Trade Secrets – What’s the difference and do I need them?

You need to protect any ideas, concepts and processes that you created and are unique to your business. But what qualifies as intellectual property – and how do you protect it? Toronto entrepreneur and Business and Technology Lawyer Sukhi Hansra explains the difference between trademarks, copyrights, patents and trade secrets. 

For many businesses, intellectual property (IP) is more than just an idea or concept. It is a business asset that is critical to the core services of the business and its overall longevity. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution and subsequent Ideas Economy propels humanity forward, there is an increased need for protecting intellectual property, particularly in a world where innovation is rapid and technology is not only changing but also constantly building upon older inventions.

Protecting intellectual property is important to prevent exploitation, maintain a competitive edge and allow for future business growth. Perhaps one of the most renowned protections of intellectual property is Coca-Cola’s syrup formulae. No doubt that if competitors knew what it was, Coca-Cola would have fierce competition. 

Let’s take a look at what intellectual property is and the different ways a business or individuals can protect theirs. 

What is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property is any product produced by human intellect that is protected by law from unauthorized use by others. Ownership of intellectual property creates a limited monopoly in the protected property. There are four types of intellectual property: patent, copyright, trademark and trade secrets.

What is a trademark?

This is an incredibly valuable piece of intellectual property that distinguishes goods or services in the marketplace. Over time, it comes to stand not merely for the actual goods or services but also for the company’s reputation.

A trademark is a word, symbol, design or any combination thereof used in association with products or services. In Canada, it is either a ‘wordmark’ composed of a word or words, or a ‘design mark’ composed of a design with or without words.

What is a copyright?

Copyright is the exclusive legal right to produce, reproduce, publish or perform an original artistic, dramatic, literary or musical work. The copyright owner is usually the creator. However, in some cases like a film studio, they may hold the copyright for work created by employees unless an agreement in place that stipulates otherwise.

What is a patent?

According to the Canadian government, a patent is a government grant that gives the inventor the right to stop others from making, using or selling of an invention for a maximum of 20 tears from the day a patent application is filed.

A patent can be a product (the sole of a running shoe), a composition (a chemical composition), a machine (a bolt cutter) a process (a computer program) or an improvement upon any of these. 

What are trade secrets?

Trade secrets are intellectual property rights on confidential industry information which may be sold or licensed. They are kept confidential because they offer value to their holders and provide a competitive business edge. Trade secrets can potentially last forever if no-one leaks the information.

Trade secrets are used in three different ways: 

  1. They ensure an invention or design is undisclosed to the public before an application for a patent or industrial design has been made.
  2. They protect inventions through means other than patent protection. This is often used when an invention has a short lifespan or is difficult to mimic.
  3. They protect valuable business information that is not formally protected through other intellectual property rights. This may include food recipes or market-research, for example.

What if someone uses my Intellectual Property without my permission?

A business lawyer can protect your rights if someone uses your IP without your permission and enforce infringement of your intellectual property rights. You can sue to stop the use of your protected property and/or for compensation for the use of your IP. 

  • A Cease and Desist letter can be sent to the persons or an organization and their lawyers if they are infringing on a copyright. In the context of intellectual property, the letter will request they stop using the specified intellectual property illegally and refrain from doing it in the future or face legal action.
  • If someone infringes on your trademark, the court can order them to stop using your trademark and pay you for their use of your protected trademark.
  • Canadian patent law allows the patent owner to sue for infringement of the patent and receive compensation for the patent’s illegal use.
  • If someone uses your trade secrets without your permission, you will need to go to court to protect your IP and be prepared to prove your trade secrets were infringed – without releasing your trade secret!.

When it comes to copyright, what is meant by fair dealing?

The Canadian Copyright Act stipulates that the use of other people’s copyright protected work without permission or payment is permitted for the following reasons: education, satire, parody, criticism, research, review or news reporting.

For example, a business selling music may play a 30-second preview of a music track to customers for their evaluation to determine if they want to purchase a song. as this technically constitutes research.

However, fair dealing is mainly applicable to works of art and not trade secrets, for example. Fair dealing is determined by the purpose, nature, character, effect and availability of alternatives to the dealing. It is deliberately ambiguous as each case exhibits unique characteristics.


Registered intellectual property rights provide an incentive to reward innovation by providing IP creators and owners with the time and opportunity to exploit their creation. As you can see, IP rights exist in many forms. Each type provides different competitive advantages to its owners and new commercialization opportunities for organizations.

This is why it’s important to effectively manage your IP through appropriate contractual agreements drawn up by a professional business lawyer.

Learn More:

Toronto Business Lawyer & Intellectual Property Lawyer

Your intellectual property is an important asset of your business. You need to legally protect any ideas, concepts and processes that you created and are unique to your business. As a tech entrepreneur myself as well as a business and technology lawyer, I know how important it is to protect your intellectual property and the future of your business.

To protect your IP and how we can help launch and grow your business, contact Sukhi Hansra to schedule a free and confidential initial phone call by calling (416) 580-0345. We’ll work with you to figure out your goals and priorities and help get you from where you are today to where you want to be.

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