An intellectual property summary covers what intellectual property, or IP, is and the rights and protections associated with it.

What Is IP?

IP refers to creations, such as the following:

  • Literary works
  • Artistic works
  • Inventions
  • Designs
  • Symbols
  • Commercial names and images

The protections that IP rights offer give people a way to benefit financially from or earn recognition for their creations. The right balance between creator interests and the interests of the wider public fosters an environment in which innovation and creativity flourish.

Government laws grant certain rights and protections so that entities can have exclusive control over their IP. Protections come in the following forms:

  • Copyrights
  • Patents
  • Trademarks
  • Trade secrets

Copyrights and Patents

Copyright describes the rights creators have to their artistic and literary works. This protection is afforded to “original works of authorship.” Copyrights give creators the following rights:

  • They can reproduce their work.
  • They can create derivative works.
  • They can distribute their works.
  • They can publicly perform their works.

Copyright doesn't cover mere ideas, concepts, systems, discoveries, or principles that are abstract. A work must be fixed in a tangible form for it to be copyrightable. The form may already exist or it can be developed later.

The following works may be copyrighted:

  • Books
  • Paintings
  • Music
  • Movies
  • Sculptures
  • Computer programs
  • Advertisements
  • Technical drawings
  • Maps
  • Databases
  • Dramas and plays
  • Graphics
  • Pictorial work

Certain minimum requirements must be met to qualify for copyright protection. The length of time a work is copyrighted for depends on the original creation date.

Patents are exclusive rights granted over an invention or industrial process, and they protect against unauthorized use of the product. Patents give their owners the right to decide if, or how, their invention can be used by someone else. 

A patent basically provides the owner with a monopoly to exclusive rights for making, using, selling, or offering to sell their invention. It also gives the owner rights over importing their invention for a set period of time. In order to get these important rights, owners must publicly disclose technical information about their invention in a published patent document.

Patent protection was designed to encourage innovation by rewarding inventors for using their time and resources for coming up with new and useful discoveries.

Trademarks and Trade Secrets

Trademarks are signs that are meant to be used in commerce as they distinguish one company's goods or services from those of other companies. Trademarks can be applied to the following:

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

Federal and state laws protect trademarks for brand names, such as Apple and Nike. The laws also protect slogans and devices used to identify and distinguish a brand's services or products. 

Trademarks, unlike copyrighted works, have different levels of protection, depending on a range of variables. These include the identifying product or service, how aware consumers are of the mark, and the geographic location where the trademark is used.

Trade secret laws are designed for the protection of sensitive business information. These laws are governed at both the federal and state level. The breadth of trade secret protection depends on the following factors:

  • Whether the information provides a company with an advantage over its rivals
  • Its secrecy
  • It being unknown to competitors

The Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA) outlines how trade secrets are protected. A trade secret could be a secret recipe for a food product or a confidential marketing plan that introduces  a new product. These secrets have independent economic value based on the confidentiality surrounding them. They retain their value as long as they're not disclosed to the public or a competitor who can gain an advantage from knowing them. The holder of the secret uses all reasonable efforts to keep the information confidential.

IP law is a vast, complex area. If you need help understanding the complexities, you may want to consult with an expert in the field. This is especially important if you have created or invented something that has value. By protecting your creation, you can benefit financially as well as earn recognition for your efforts. 

Rights and protections are put in place to encourage more innovation, which is beneficial for society as a whole.

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