Intellectual property rights are more at risk than ever. It has never been easier to communicate your ideas: with the touch of a button, your thoughts are transmitted around the world. Unfortunately, it’s also that easy for someone to gain access to your intellectual property and present it as their own.
What is intellectual property?
Intellectual property covers anything that you create — writing, designs, music, inventions and anything else that you commit to paper, your computer or any other medium. Individuals and companies alike are protected under intellectual property laws, with the exception of the trade secrets section. There are four areas of intellectual property law to be aware of.
Patent law does two things. First, it gives the patent holder property rights for new inventions — products, processes and designs. When an individual applies for and is granted a patent, they have legal sole ownership of their idea and the right to deny anyone else the right to produce, distribute or use the protected concept. The patent holder is the only entity with the right to license or sell their idea.
Patent law also allows for compulsory licensing, which grants companies or individuals the rights to the patent without the permission of the patent owner. This aspect of patent law applies to inventions like Covid vaccines.
A trademark is violated when one company tries to use a logo or slogan that has already been registered for use by another company. The federal Lanham Act codifies the statutes relating to trademark law that primarily protect the trademark holder against “infringement and dilution” that would confuse a consumer.
Creative content typically falls under the copyright law umbrella. This covers anything from entertainment to software. Copyright owners are protected against others copying or presenting their work without express permission. Copyrights do expire after a prescribed period, and at that point the work is considered to be in the public domain.
Any business practices, formulae, processes or designs — anything that would not be common knowledge to a business outsider — are legally covered under trade secret statutes. A business does not have to register its trade secrets (that would defeat the purpose) for that information to be considered proprietary. For instance, the designs and technology for a new smartphone would be covered under trade secrets laws.
With other forms of theft, you can regain possession of your property. Intellectual property is different. Once it has been stolen you can’t really get it back. If your ideas are stolen, you might not even know it until it’s too late. Being proactive and registering your inventions or ideas is the best way to protect yourself against this kind of theft.