What about your product makes it unique? What gives it that edge over all the others? The answer to these questions may be a valuable trade secret. Common varieties include recipes, formulas, patterns, compounds, and tools or devices for manufacturing. The three defining characteristics of a trade secret are that it: is not generally known, gives an economic advantage to its owner, and has (via steps taken by the owner) been kept confidential.
In the interest of retaining that confidentiality, a trade secret is managed without government registration. Unlike a patent, in which a government body publishes the item in question and gives an exclusive right of use to the owner for a period of time, a trade secret is retained by its owner as long as it remains a secret. Provisions for the legal protection of trade secrets are handled on the state level in the US. Both California and Minnesota’s trade secret protection laws conform to the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. The act lays out legal recourse for a trade secret owner in the event of “misappropriation”, which simply means the acquisition, discovery, or dissemination of a trade secret by improper means.
The conceivably unlimited duration of a trade secret gives it a longevity which may be a considerable factor in choosing that model over a patent (which will apply for 20 years). However, trade secrets are not protected against discovery by reverse engineering. That is, if analysis of a final product can allow someone to discover the trade secret, the trade secret and the owner’s control over its commercial benefit are nullified.