How intellectual property is protected seems to be quite a mystery for many. I am no lawyer, but ideas, designs, and methods can be protected in at least a couple of different ways, very different one from the other:
The first one is just plain secrecy. If no one can see it, no one can copy it. This is the case of secret formulas for example. The Coca-Cola secret formula is perhaps the most cited and famous one, but there are other notable ones like Dr. Pepper, KFC’s batter, WD40, Listerine, and even the Google search algorithm.
Trade secrets don’t require to file anything with anybody, but if they would get out into the wild, they may completely lose their value and there may not be anything to protect their inventor.
Patents, are actually completely the opposite. Filing for a patent with the United States Patent Office can be a complicated thing, require many different documents, and it only offers protection in the US, and in those countries where the US has an agreement with through international law. Then there is the additional complexity of enforcing a patent. Lawyers and court procedures are expensive, and if the holder of the patent does not have assurance that they can make money on a lawsuit, it may not be worth trying to enforce a patent.
Patents also have another feature, and this is where most people get confused: the information in the patent filing, is a public record. Anybody can obtain a printout and make a copy of the device, it may not even be illegal if there is no intention to make money with it.
The patent office is actually a big instruction manual for anybody who wants to recreate western society.
Here is an example, one of THE FIRST PATENTS filed by Leo Fender, the inventor of the Fender Stratocaster.