Intellectual property disputes are becoming increasingly common due to the internet being a tool for spreading and sharing mass communication often without people being mindful of copyright laws. Additionally, ambiguity in employer/employee relationships is cause for intellectual property disputes.

What Is Intellectual Property?

First things first, as it’s important to understanding the parameters of intellectual property before you start worrying about whether you are going to find yourself in a dispute.

Intellectual property refers to “goods and services” such as artwork (photography, paintings, graphic design), written content (poetry, literature, song lyrics), and symbols, names, etc. that are used in marketing or commerce. Essentially, intellectual property is a term used to refer to creations that are not tangible. Within the scope of intellectual property, there are then four types of protections:

  • Trademarks: think of the swoosh on the side of Nike sneakers or the peacock that is associated with the TV network NBC. These are symbols or logos that are associated with a specific brand or product. A trademark never expires, provided that the logo is continually being used. Hollywood celebrities have also been known to trademark their names or images, to ensure they are not falsely associated with brands without their permission.
  • Copyrights: while we speak of intellectual property in terms of creative works that are not tangible, for a work to be copyrighted, it must be printed (online, on paper, etc.) in some kind of tangible form. Examples of works that can be copyrighted include literary works and essentially any kind of artistic work, from films to music to images. Unlike a trademark, copyrights to expire after time.
  • Patents: when someone has a great idea for something not yet on the market, they often get it patented. This ensures that no one else can take the idea and build or manufacture it first. Like copyrights, though, patents do expire after a period of time.
  • Trade Secrets: if you have ever worked for an employer that had you sign a nondisclosure agreement, protecting trade secrets was probably why. This is most commonly seen in the tech industry and anyone who works in any kind of research and development field.

Examples of Intellectual Property Disputes

You have probably heard or read about any number of famous intellectual property disputes, whether you realized that was the nature of the case, or not. Some examples of high-profile intellectual property cases include:

  • A&M Records v. Napster: it seems like such a long time since anyone even talked about Napster, so it could be easy to forget this was once the biggest intellectual property disputes in the early days of the internet. Napster, founded in 1999 by Shawn Fanning, was a music sharing service that allowed people to share music among one another for free. Obviously, for recording artists and record producers, this was bad news, as they make their money off of sales. A&M Records sued Napster for copyright infringement, as Napster was distributing music without permission from the owner(s) of the copyright. Napster was found guilty and shut down in 2002.
  • Kellogg v. National Biscuit: would you eat something being referred to as a “whisk broom” or “a shredded doormat?” Probably not, but in 1983, that is what was being said about Shredded Whole Wheat, a cereal created by Henry Perky. Despite the obvious issues with branding and product description, the morning meal gained popularity. In 1912, four years after Perky passed away, his patents expired (remember: patent protections do not last into perpetuity), and John Harvey Kellogg began producing a similar cereal, causing a lawsuit to be brought by the National Biscuit Company. The case made it all the way to United States Supreme Court, where the favor fell to Kellogg, as the patent had expired.

Most Common Types of Intellectual Property Disputes

If you find yourself in the throes of an intellectual property dispute, chances are, it is copyright infringement, as that is the most common. As you probably gathered from the earlier referenced Napster case, copyright infringement in when works are reproduced, distributed, etc., without the permission of the owner.

Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of a lawsuit, so the best and easiest way to avoid copyright infringement is simply always give credit and don’t take anything from the internet, as it is almost always copyrighted by default.

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