An intellectual property overview covers what constitutes intellectual property, or IP, as well as how IP is protected. Intellectual property is property that someone thinks up and creates, like artistic work, inventions, and designs. There are certain rights and protections afforded by the federal and state governments so that people who create these works have exclusive control over their IP. Protection comes in the following forms:

  • Copyrights
  • Trademarks
  • Patents
  • Trade secrets

Copyrights and Trademarks

Copyright protection is given to “original works of authorship.” This protection includes the following rights:

  • To reproduce
  • To create derivative works
  • To distribute
  • To publicly perform

Copyright doesn't extend to ideas, concepts, systems, or principles in abstract forms. To be able to obtain copyright protection, you must fix your work in a tangible form. The form can currently exist or it may be developed later.

Works that can be copyrighted include the following:

  • Literature
  • Dramas and plays
  • Music
  • Choreography
  • Sculptures
  • Pictorial work
  • Music
  • Movies
  • Architectural work

Trademarks must be distinctive marks, and producers use them to distinguish their brand or goods from others in the marketplace. Normally, the first producer to use a trademark in commerce holds exclusive rights to it.

Trademarks can be applied to the following:

  • Word
  • Logo
  • Phrase
  • Symbol
  • Sound
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Fragrance

Sometimes, a product's appearance or packaging can be its trademark. For instance, the name  "Coca-Cola" and the shape of the Coca-Cola bottle are trademarked.

Other things that have been registered as trademarks include the following:

  • Sounds, such as MGM's lion's roar or Tarzan's yell
  • A piece of music, such as the Lone Ranger theme
  • Colors, such as pink fiberglass insulation
  • A sequence of notes, such as NBC's chimes

Patents and Trade Secrets

A patent gives an individual or company the exclusive right to make, sell, offer to sell, or use a particular invention for a set period of time. The purpose of patent protection is to encourage innovators to invest their time and efforts into developing new, useful discoveries.

Inventors must disclose their patented information publicly to obtain a patent. They apply to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. They must show that their invention is novel and non-obvious.

These are the three main types of patents:

  • Utility patents include inventions, such as an article of manufacture, a product of genetic engineering, a machine, a chemical or DNA sequence, a method of doing something, or improvements to these.
  • Plant patents cover inventions or discoveries relating to new varieties of certain kinds of plants.
  • Design patents cover a useful device's ornamental appearance but not its function. For instance, the IBM Selectric typewriter case and the Porsche Targa's body shape were subjects of design patents.

Trade secret protection covers business secrets that, if known, could give your competitors an advantage. These secrets may include how a product is made, which ingredients are used to make it, or customer lists.

Algorithms and source codes of computer programs often fall under trade secret protection. One of the most famous examples is the formula for Coca-Cola.

The Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA) states that the holder of the trade secret should try to keep it confidential with the understanding that the secret's value lies in not generally being known by people who may benefit from it if they knew it.

Previously, a trade secret's disclosure or improper use of it was a common law tort. Six factors had to be considered to decide whether or not certain information actually counted as a trade secret. Most states adhere to the UTSA. For a trade secret holder to enforce his or her secret under UTSA law, he or she has to prove that a defendant acquired the information wrongfully.

Intellectual property law can be a complicated arena. If you have valuable IP assets you wish to protect, you may want to consult with an expert in the field. IP rights provide invaluable protection for original works, and both creators and society-at-large both benefit from this protection. Without it, inventors and innovators might not wish to share their creations with the world, especially if they're unable to reap the benefits of all their hard work.

If you need help with intellectual property, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.