Ownership of intellectual property can be a slippery slope. In some cases, more than one person will claim ownership of an idea or piece of work. If that happens, it will be necessary to determine through documentation and other proof who is the true owner of the IP.

What is intellectual property (IP)?

Anything that you have created using your own skills results in intellectual property, or IP. IP is typically defined widely and includes anything from:

  • discoveries
  • inventions
  • copyrighted pieces
  • patents
  • knowledge
  • trade secrets
  • artistic work

It can also include books, software, inventions, research papers and journal articles.

Protection of IP is handled under copyright and patent laws. The rights to intellectual property may be bought and sold using binding contracts. There is typically a trail of documentation to help establish who owns the IP. IP rights can also be established during the creating of the work.

A copyright provides the holder of creative work or artistic productions the exclusive rights to copy and distribute those works. Copyrights cover many works including computer programs, publications, paintings and books. The copyright holder has to grant permission before anyone may copy or distribute his or her work.

A piece of work is considered copyrighted upon creation. Once it is expressed through any medium, it is copyrighted. Creators of this material may register the copyright, but it is not required for the copyright to be valid. Copyright holders are allowed to assign their rights to others if he or she chooses to do so in order for that product or idea to be licensed or used.

What is Patent?

A patent is granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. It is given to a patent holder, with the right to exclude others for a certain period of time, from using, manufacturing, making or selling an invention in the United States and surrounding territories.

Patents are legal documents that describes an invention in full detail and defines the scope of the product or idea. Patents for inventions may also be obtained in other counties.

At this point, if an employee invents a product while on the job or for the purpose of their employer, the employer will own the rights to a patent if one follows. However, the employee who invented the product could be entitled to compensation, only if the invention, patent, or a combination is considered an outstanding benefit for the employer.

What Can be Patented?

Rights for patents can be granted for all sorts of things, from inventions of new products or processes, manufacturers, machines or any useful and new improvement of items that are already in use.

An invention has to be considered useful, new and non-obvious. New is defined as something that has not yet been disclosed publicly for over a year before the application date.

Items that cannot be patented are ideas, theories, scientific principles or laws of nature.

What about Designs?

The person who creates the design is the first owner of that piece of intellectual property. Design rights will automatically protect a design for ten years after the first one was sold, or fifteen years after creation, whatever point was the earliest.

There are no official symbols that state a designed is registered. However, you may display the design number on the product or object after it has been registered.

There are many benefits from registering a design. Your design may have some automatic protections in the scope of copyright laws and unregistered design rights. If you created the design, you are likely to be considered the owner and may apply for a design registration. There are some exceptions, like when a design is created under the direction and within the course of your employment.

In the UK, law now defines that unless there is a contract stating otherwise, the location of the design commission does not matter and the designer is the owner rather than the person commissioning it.

What are Trade Marks?

The initial trade mark owner will typically be the company that uses the mark first, as long it has not been registered already. The ownership of copyrights also must be considered where the trade mark comes from a copyrighted work, like a novel logo. Copyright ownership can automatically arise or can be transferred.

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