There are four kinds of intellectual property rights, four ways to protect one's intellectual property:
Patents: The right of an inventor over a new or novel and useful invention that is not obvious to some skilled in that specific task.1
A patent excludes others from trespassing over the invention for the valid life of the patent protection. The infringer is liable for civil damages including royalties and attorney fees.
A patent has to be applied for, is examined by the proper authority, and then granted to become valid.
A patent lasts for between 14 and 20 years in the US.
Copyrights: This right applies to an original and creative expression of an idea provided to its creator (author, artist, musician, software programmer). The idea itself is not protected, only its expression is protected.
A copyright grants the creator a "bundle of rights" over the work including the rights to reproduce, distribute, display or perform in public, and make derivative works.
This right comes into existence at the same time the expression comes into existence, but it can also be defended by registering it with proper authority.
Lasts for the lifetime of the creator and then for 70 years after the creator's death.
Trademarks: this refers to the textual or non-textual identification of a product or service with its source.
May not be reproduced or counterfeited in connection with sale, distribution, or advertising. The infringer may be forced to turn over any profits, pay damages and attorney fees.
A trademark has to be applied for, and, provided it is not generic or merely descriptive, it provided by the proper authority.
It remains in existence for as long as it is in use.
Trade Secrets: is what it implies, just a secret that gives its possessor an advantage.
It merely prevents others from stealing the idea, but if someone else comes up with the same idea independently then there is no remedy.