It seems that every time I read about intellectual property in the news or see a reference to it in the movies, the person referencing it badly butchers the significance of the intellectual property issues at stake.
That is why I want to provide you with a simple framework for understanding intellectual property. This article covers many of the differences between the four main kinds: trademarks, trade secrets, patents and copyrights. Hopefully, you will end up with a quick and dirty idea of the distinctions between them as well as some of the nuances that are important in each area.
Where do you register intellectual property?
Patents and trademarks are registered at the federal level (at the USPTO). Copyright is also registered at the federal level (via the Copyright Office). Trademarks can be registered in individual states as well, although this type of registration does not offer very powerful legal protection. Trade secrets cannot be registered anywhere, but good contracts can often establish and reinforce their value.
What does each type of intellectual property protect?
Again, at the risk of oversimplifying – patents protect inventions (but not ideas per se), trade secrets protect information that has economic value, trademarks protect brands, and copyright protects the expression of ideas.
What else should I know ambien about patents?
Well, they protect inventions that are new, useful and non-obvious. The time frame that patents are effective for is the shortest of any types of intellectual property, but patents are often considered to be the most powerful form of intellectual property (as well as the most expensive and difficult to obtain).
What else should I know about trademarks?
Trademarks are designed to protect consumers as well as owners, while the other forms of intellectual property focus on the rights of the owners. Trademark rights can last forever, while copyrights and patents inevitably expire. A short definition of a trademark often used is as follows: a trademark is a distinctive word, symbol or device that sellers affix to a product to a) identify that product, and b) distinguish it from competing products. Trademark law also applies to services, and while you might here the term “service mark”, legal rights of trademarks and service marks are identical.
What else should I know about copyright?
A copyright protects “original works of authorship”. The threshold for protection is very low, as the only additional consideration is that these works be “fixed in a tangible form of expression”. Thus, almost every expression of an idea is protected by copyright, and registration is optional. This adds up to make copyright probably the weakest form of intellectual property. However, works that are original enough and registered properly can be very valuable.
What else should I know about trade secrets?
Trade secrets are like trademarks in that they can theoretically last forever (the Coca Cola formula is a good example), but they are treacherous in that they can be lost at any time if reasonable measures are not taken to maintain their security. Examples of common trade secrets include customer lists, product formulations, and inventive business techniques and processes. Rights from trade secrets spring from their independent value and well as the efforts undertaken to assure their continued secrecy.