We live in a new age of innovation. Every day, it seems, a new piece of technology emerges to make our lives easier. You may want to be a part of this, but having a great idea is only half the battle. How do you make sure you’re truly the first to invent the item in question? Moreover, how do you then protect it from imitations? Well, first you need to understand a little something about intellectual property.
Intellectual property, or IP for short, is the broad legal term given to mental creations. This can range from familiar concepts like patents, copyrights, and trademarks—to less familiar inclusions such as industrial designs and even geographical indicators. Essentially, they all apply for the same purpose, which is to “enable people to earn recognition or financial benefit from what they invent or create.” By labelling them as “property,” we convey many of same protections that would apply to personal property, such as a house or car. You can learn about the generalities of IP from the World Intellectual Property Organization: http://www.wipo.int/about-ip/en/. Unfortunately, unlike these items, it’s not as easy to discern which category they fit into from the start.
Let’s start with copyrights and trademarks, as they’re probably the most common forms of IP. A copyright is often the first step as it’s the broad legal term used to convey ownership over creations, for those of a literary and/or artistic nature. It’s what protects compositions like books, paintings, music, movies, advertisements, and even computer programs. However, such protection has a defined limit. Based on the Copyright Act of 1976, a granted copyright will last for the lifetime of the creator, plus 70 years, so as to maintain a legacy for his/her beneficiaries. Mind you, these are only the regulations within the United States and works will have different protection periods overseas. To find out more, straight from the U.S. government, click here: https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ15a.pdf. Trademarks, on the other hand, are simply the signs used to distinguish goods or services. This practice is ancient in its origins, dating back to the artisan signatures/marks placed on their products in the BC era and beyond. It’s a great way to identify items that are already the IP of someone else, but the protection they afford works a little differently. While trademarks don’t have a lifetime guarantee, so to speak, you do have the option to renew them upon expiration, which typically occurs in 10 years. These renewals can be granted indefinitely, especially if they’re linked to a business, rather than an individual. Fortunately, the registration process itself isn’t overly arduous. When we get into aspects of IP like patents and more abstract concepts like designs or locations, though, more guidance is needed.
A patent varies from a copyright most distinctly in that it applies to an invention, rather than something more conceptual. Both allow the originator license over how the item in question can be used and/or reproduced, but with inventions, it’s not always so direct. For example, let’s say John Smith invents a new type of hinge that can be used in smartphone technology. If Apple wants to license this from him, he has the right to approve or deny this patent, as well as whether or not they can make any variations to it. Thus, the inventor can stymie other products/inventions if he/she so chooses. In exchange for this additional aspect of control, “the patent owner makes technical information about the invention publicly available in the published patent document.” This allows others to learn from his/her advancements, and so supports a creative environment that will foster future developments. Again, it’s worth mentioning that a U.S. patent typically doesn’t protect outside the territorial boundaries of the country, and these additional rights come with a short shelf life—20 years in this case. In addition to the forms and approval processes, there are fees and assignments that may complicate matters. You can consult the official United States Patent and Trademark Office’s website here: https://www.uspto.gov/patent.
Industrial designs are a very broad, thus confusing, category of intellectual property. This term can apply to the rounded arches used to distinguish the McDonald’s buildings from their competitors, or to something as small as the plug design of Apple versus that of Samsung. Often it’s design, both two- and three-dimensional, that sets competitors apart from one another. In an effort to enable this, IP extends to even the smallest visual elements, for a time. Probably the best way to illustrate this concept is with the Ingelec case study found here: http://www.wipo.int/ipadvantage/en/details.jsp?id=2649. Geographical indications can be equally confusing, though the idea comes from a good place. In an effort to bring together innovators from a specific region by giving them a unifying mark to display, this form of IP usually only applies to agricultural products, like food and drink, as well as certain industrial artifacts.
Overall, these concepts have the same goal: to nurture an economy that values and protects creativity. They’re a fine balance between allowing profit from innovations, while simultaneously providing fodder for future inventions. Thus, consulting a legal professional with ample experience in intellectual property law is to your advantage. After all, if you’re bogged down with the bureaucracy of defending your creations, you’ll find it difficult to produce more!