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Intellectual Property Law

What is intellectual property law?

The United States federal government and state governments allow property owners various legal rights over certain kinds of property that are born out of ideas. These ideas are, in essence, considered intellectual property that may result in tangible or intangible outcomes.

The basic protections of intellectual property law include the following:

  • Patents- as a general rule, a patent protects those things that spring from an idea resulting in the creation of something tangible. This can be as simple as the invention of the paperclip to something as complex as a computer hard drive. The Federal Government is responsible for assigning a patent.  Many inventors often seek to obtain a patent when they have a new idea and believe it holds commercial value. A patent holder is protected for twenty years from the date of filing for an application. This process is designed to protect and encourage innovation, yet must meet certain criteria in order to be effective.
  • Trademarks- trademarks protect those intangible things that brand or identify something. For instance, a company name, slogan, or product name can be trademarked to protect others from using them. A company logo, design, or image can also be trademarked.
  • Copyrights- Any form of artistic creation is considered under a copyright that protects the creator's rights of use. These items include songs, movies, videos, poetry, books and other written works, photography, and art objects.  A copyright protects the individual expression or interpretation of something. It doesn't protect the idea itself. A copyright allows its owner to sell, distribute, display, make copies of, and perform artistic creations.
  • Trade Secrets- trade secrets are things that a company or inventor wishes to keep confidential. Trade secret laws protect those intangible things that are valuable and would create unfair competition. Each state has various interpretations of this law.

There are varying degrees of protection and steps one should take to protect their intellectual property.  Which type of legal protection needed will depend on what a person has created. There are also other variables to these protections such as accurate description, timely filing, and proof of ownership that can all bear on a person's actual rights.

For instance, a copyright on a photograph is actually implied at the time of creation. The owner doesn't have to file an official copyright on it in order to protect it. This has been in effect since 1989 when the Berne Convention was implemented. When that work is fixed in some tangible way of expression, it is automatically protected even if the owner doesn't officially file a copyright. Enforcing the copyright law is more difficult, however, when there isn't an official copyright filed.

Intellectual property law has grown and changed over the years especially now that most people have Internet access. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, for instance, spelled out limitations of use for material found on the Internet. The difficulty for creators of protected works is enforceability. With international access, the enforcement issue grows even more complex.

Attorneys that specialize in intellectual property law are trained in areas that deal with business and consumer protections against illegal use of protected intellectual property. As more issues come to light and new precedents are set, these changes in intellectual property law will possibly create better protections for property owners in the future.

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