Intellectual Property: Rights, Law and penalties in the US
Intellectual property is defined as property that results from original inventions, including designs, original writing, artwork, and anything else that is an original and proprietary. This can span from engineering and product design, to written manuscripts, and visual designs like logos and artwork. It can also be an original saying, concept, or process.
The US protects intellectual property with intellectual property laws. This type of law deals with securing and enforcing individual and company legal rights to original inventions, original design, and artistic works. This is similar to how law protects physical asset ownership, such as real estate, but in this case, the protections extend to intangible assets if they are properly recorded.
There are four major categories for intellectual property protections in the US. These include:
- Patents – protects inventions of original products and other tangible things, features and original product design
- Trade Secrets – protect secret information, such as formulas and recipes
- Trademarks – protect brands, logos and any other symbols identifying the source of goods or services
- Copyrights – protects the original work of artists and writers
US intellectual property laws are administered by two government agencies: the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the U.S. Copyright Office.
Patents give inventors the exclusive right to use their product in the marketplace, or to sell that right to someone else in order to generate a profit. Patent rights can vary based on the type of items they protect. US patent rights are valid for up to 20 years. Patents can cover the unique look of an already existing product. Patent applications are sometimes denied, often if the design is determined to be obvious, not useful, or morally inappropriate.
Trademarks serve the purpose of preventing confusion and misleading advertising. They make it easier for consumers to distinguish one brand from another. They also protect the brand value that business owners invest in, such as logo design. Some trademarks can last forever, while some have a time limit. Trademarks can be registered for additional protection, but registration is not mandatory.
Copyrights are used protect works of writing, film, music, architecture, and other original intellectual and artistic expressions. This does not include theories or ideas – some sort of a fixed medium is required to capture the idea to qualify for a copyright. Most copyrights in the US are valid for the lifetime of the creator, plus 70 years.
The help of an intellectual property attorney is usually needed to file patents, trademarks, and copyrights. By hiring an attorney, an individual or business can be sure that their intellectual property is protected at both the Federal and State level, and can be properly informed about any limitations of protections. Once a trademark or patent is obtained, it is up to the intellectual property owner to let it be known that the intellectual property is protected and belongs to him / her. This might mean reaching out to unknowing offenders and presenting documentation of the patent, copyright or trademark, or simply posting it online or in a place of business. There are often notifications about patents included in advertising, even if the patent is pending. Placing the appropriate symbol (™, ©, etc.) after the item registration with the government is recommended as a notification method of the protection’s existence.
Violations of intellectual property laws, including the unauthorized use of trademarked materials are called infringement. When it occurs, rights to intellectual property can be enforced in federal court. It can be a long and bumpy path for the plaintiff, however. Infringement cases are expensive to prosecute, and there is risk that intellectual property rights will face heavy scrutiny in court and may end up being less powerful than originally thought. If the intellectual property owner ends up suing, and wins, the court can order an injunction, meaning the infringer must cease activities that the case challenges. Financial damages may also be awarded. Once the intellectual property owner's rights are established in court, he or she may decide to generate money through a licensing agreement with the offender.
Intellectual property laws have the potential to carry a lot of financial weight. Rights to intellectual property can help their owners make significant amounts of money. This is a two way street, however: infringement claims have the potential to bankrupt large businesses. Anyone dealing with filing or defending an intellectual property claim should invest in professional legal help. There are firms that specialize in intellectual property law to help people who are looking to establish, profit from, or defend their rights.