Updated November 23, 2020:

What is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property for dummies is a rather tongue-in-cheek way of referring to a basic guide to intellectual property rights, knowledge of which can be very valuable to those both in and outside of business since you don’t have to own a business to be in violation of intellectual property laws.

Intellectual property, or IP, refers to anything created by the human mind that is granted the same rights associated with tangible or personal property. These rights are obtained by the IP’s creator and function under statutory law on either or both the state and federal level. Issues of IP law may be dealt with in the law fields of:

  1. Patent law
  2. Copyright law
  3. Trade secret law
  4. Right of publicity law
  5. Unfair competition and trademark law

Common IP law violations within these fields include:

  1. IP rights copyright infringement
  2. Plagiarism
  3. Software piracy
  4. Corporate espionage

Violations of IP law can carry serious consequences for you or your business, so it is best to become as knowledgeable as possible in this area of the law, especially if you expect to be dealing with IP frequently. Ignorance does not excuse you in the eyes of the law.

What is a Patent?

There are four main types of IP, one of which is the patent. Patents exist to protect the property rights to original inventions for individuals or entities. Unlike copyright, a patent does not exist at the moment of creation but must be granted by a governing body. In the United States, this body is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Some basic details about patents to keep in mind include:

  • Ideas cannot be patented, only identifiable or tangible methods or structures
  • A patent-worthy invention must be novel, or new. This means it cannot have been known of or created at any time or place previously
  • A patent-worthy invention must not be obvious. This means it must innovate beyond what a person of ordinary skill could create. A basic lever, for instance, is not patentable
  • A patent-worthy invention must be useful. This means it must have a current, beneficial, and significant use as a machine, manufacturing method, process, or composition of matter, or be an improvement of one

Copyright is another IP form that deals with original creative works, the rights to which it aims to protect. Such rights are granted at the moment of creation without the need to file for copyright (although copyright may be filed for through the Copyright Office), and such rights include the right to:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Create derivative works from that work
  • Distribute copies of the work
  • Perform or display the work publicly

Copyrights only protect the form of expression, not what is being expressed, so copyright protection does not exist for:

  • Ideas
  • Processes
  • Procedures
  • Systems
  • Methods
  • Principles
  • Concepts
  • Discoveries

What is a Trade Secret?

A trade secret is a form of IP that relates to business information of value that is not considered to be of general public knowledge and which is subjected to reasonable efforts to maintain its confidentiality. Trade secrets are protected against misappropriation by those who access them by improper means or breach confidentiality agreements. For something to be defined as a trade secret, it must:

  • Not be obvious. Unique methods, formulas, market information, and customer lists would all be considered to be not obvious information.
  • Provide an economic or competitive advantage. Such advantages establish a potential trade secret’s value. Without value, something cannot be a trade secret.
  • Be protected in some way from disclosure. A trade secret can be shared with some people, but if no effort is made to ensure its secrecy from the general public, then its status as a trade secret will be dubious.

What is a Trademark?

A trademark is IP that distinguishes types of goods or brands from other types of goods or brands. This may include names, words, devices, symbols, and even colors, sounds, and smells. Trademarks are used to prevent other entities from creating confusingly similar products or brands to profit off a previously established brand.

To secure a trademark, one can either begin using a logo, name, slogan, or other marks of identification for a commercial purpose and file for a trademark based off its distinct commercial usefulness or file an intent-to-use application, securing a trademark for future use.

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