What is Intellectual Property?
Intellectual property is almost anything that you develop with your mind grapes. It's writings, it's software, it's customer lists, it's recipes for cookies. The list of what is intellectual property is almost endless.
In general, intellectual property is the "produce of human intellect that the law protects from the unauthorized use by others." (Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute). It traditionally includes four categories: patent, copyright, trademark, and trade secrets.
How can I protect my ideas?
You have this fancy idea and you want to protect it to make sure no else uses it for their own financial gain. So what do you do? Depending on what you're trying to protect, you have four options: register a trademark or service mark, register a copyright, file a patent application, or just keep it on the DL. (do people still say that?)
Keeping ideas hush-hush - known as a trade secret - can be the best protection possible because patents require a filing of the design, but it really depends on what you're trying to protect. Secret recipes and formulas (like Coca Cola and KFC) have be protected by trade secrets for decades, whereas ideas and drawings (like Mickey Mouse) have been protected through copyright since Walt Disney first drew a tail on a mouse and decided that his name was not Mortimer.
What happens if I don't protect my ideas?
The worst thing that happens is some else uses your idea and takes over the Moon! Hyperbole aside, you could lose out on the value of your ideas, recipes, lists, and designs. Someone might use your ideas in ways that are counter to your values, or you could miss the opportunity that was stolen from you.
To recover from the theft or misappropriation of your ideas, you're into a several years long and expensive litigation where you might never recover the value of what was lost and you likely won't recover the fees you spent on the attorney. While you might still be in a litigation situation if someone steals your ideas, if you have protected them through contracts, registrations, and non-disclosure agreements, your litigation might be shorter and less expensive.
How does protecting my intellectual property benefit me?
By protecting your ideas, your creativity, and your artistic designs that you labored to bring into being, you can ensure that you're the only person who can benefit from your creativity.
Whether that means writing and performing new songs, new music, taking more photographs, painting new pictures, writing new books, or developing a new app or game, by protecting your ideas, you'll be able use your creativity to improve your life.