What is Intellectual Property?
Intellectual property (IP) is any intangible creation that is the product of human intellect. Intellectual property rights are laws that protect the use and replication of these works from unauthorized sources. There are four main mechanisms in place for safeguarding intellectual property: Copyrights, patents, trademarks and trade secrets.
Understanding IP laws, and how you can protect your works either when starting, or licensing your business, is important.
A copyright gives the creator of an original work (creative, intellectual, or artistic form) the exclusive legal authority to determine if, where, and when said work can be reproduced, published, sold, or distributed by others. Copyright owners also enjoy financial rights which allow them to benefit from the re-use of their creation by others.
Copyrights are usually granted for a limited amount of time and do include some limitations and exceptions, such as not protecting ideas themselves, only how those ideas were originally expressed.
Works eligible for copyright include poems, literary pieces, movies, television and radio broadcasts, dance choreography, songs and musical compositions, paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, architectural designs, and computer software.
Example: A famous copyright infringement case, Vanilla Ice (Ice Ice Baby) vs. David Bowie/Freddie Mercury (Under Pressure).
A patent gives the owner of an invention (which is either the inventor or their successor-in-title) the exclusive legal right to exclude others from making, using, importing, or selling their innovation for a limited amount of time.
However, this protection is not automatic. A patent must be applied for and approved - if you live in the US, you can do so through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
By protecting and rewarding inventors for their work, patents are meant to encourage others to invest the time and resources necessary for the development of new and useful discoveries.
Examples of inventions eligible for a patent include utilities (chemicals, machines, technology), designs (shape, configuration, and aesthetics of items), and plants (such as asexually reproduced apple trees and hybrid fruit trees like tangelos).
Example: One of the most valuable patents in history is Lipitor, Pfizer’s cholesterol-lowering drug.
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A trademark protects the design or word usage of a name, symbol or other distinguishable branding element of a business that indicates the source of their goods or services.
Trademarks make it easy for consumers to differentiate sellers from their competitors, as well as protect trademark owners from counterfeit and brand piracy. It's something all business owners should consider when registering their business for the first time.
Trademark owners may use any of the following three symbols to express their IP:
™: an unregistered trademark used to brand goods.
℠: an unregistered trademark used to brand services.
®: a registered trademark granted by the government.
Example: A very famous example is the two words ‘golden arches,’ coined by McDonald’s.
A trade secret protects a specific, confidential process from being copied. Typically these are owned and kept private by a business, which enforces strict nondisclosure agreements and non-compete clauses. For freelancers and individual employees who have their own creative processes to protect, they might enforce that the company they are working with signs a WFH (work for hire) agreement.
Unlike the other types of intellectual property, the protection of a trade secret lies in the hands of the individual or business who possesses it. Therefore, it is their responsibility to take the necessary measures in order to keep this information classified.
Trade secret examples include formulas, designs and patterns, recipes, systems and devices.
Example: Coca-Cola’s famous soda drink recipe.