According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, “intellectual property refers to creations of the mind such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names, and images used in commerce.” This definition may seem pretty comprehensive and straight forward but there are many instances when what is and is not intellectual property can become difficult to define.
For example, if a person coins a phrase on a viral video that later becomes popular is it their intellectual property? Can a third party use that phrase on t-shirts, for example? What about more abstract concepts like the “Motown sound” or “new jack swing”? Both of these musical styles were pioneered by individuals who used them in commerce, but does that give them intellectual property rights over the musical style? Can another artist use these established styles in their own music without violating the rights of the creators?
To get a better idea of what is and is not intellectual property let’s first understand the types of intellectual property recognized by the law.
Copyright is a creator’s legal rights over their literary or artistic work. You may be slightly more familiar with copyright law than other types of intellectual property since it is one of the most common types of intellectual property. If you have ever made a YoutTube video that used a popular song, lifted an image from a website, or copy and pasted somebody’s written work without citing the original source, you have probably been in violation of copyright laws. Most of these violations go unnoticed and unpunished. In fact, many artists are happy to see their work being used and shared. However, many people don’t realize that copyrights can be held on less traditional forms of creative work such as sculptures, databases, and computer programs.
A patent grants the owner the exclusive right to an invention. That means that the patent owner has the right to decide who can use, build, and sell the invention. It also gives them the right to license the use of the patent. Patent owners can also prevent third parties from using the said invention. Notice that this right is given to the patent owner, not the inventor. It’s not uncommon for patents to be bought and sold by individuals and companies. In fact, a whole industry has been built around people who buy patents to inventions that they did not create. Also, inventors don’t need to have built a prototype to apply for a patent. Patenting is there to protect the inventor’s ideas and plans for the prototype. And those who buy patents are often willing to invest money to see the idea come to life.
Trademarks are signs, seals, or insignia that distinguish one enterprise from another. The term gets its name from ancient trade guilds that would mark their products to let the buyers know that they were crafted by legitimate tradesmen. The practice of trademarking has existed in various forms and has been used all over the world to distinguish items crafted by legitimate and established craftsmen and distinguish one guild or group from another. Specific colors, shapes, logos, and fonts can all be trademarked.
An industrial design deals with the ornamental or decorative design of an object. This shouldn’t be confused with a patent, which has to do with the design of an object itself. An industrial design can be three dimensional or two dimensional. It can deal with the shape of a surface or the patterns and colors on the object itself. Industrial design is the design that is applied to products that are manufactured, often to make them user-friendly or aesthetically pleasing.
We encounter geographical indicators every day. Florida oranges, Brazilian steaks, and steakhouses, made in the USA tags, and African shea butter are all examples of geographical indicators. It is a name or sign that corresponds to a specific geographical region that is associated with that product or method of production. When people see that sign or name they expect a certain quality from the product and assume that certain methods of production have been used. A geographical indicator is a form of intellectual property that has evolved out of trademark laws as governments moved to protect the “good name” of regions with a reputation for producing quality goods.
Trade secrets are confidential bits of information that may be traded or licensed. These can include recipes and production methods. The unauthorized selling, sharing, or licensing of this information is both unfair and illegal.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many subsets of intellectual property that fall under these six categories, but understanding them will help you to understand what is and isn’t protected by law. It will also help you to understand what kind of intellectual property rights you need to employ to protect your work.
Intellectual property can be a complicated maze to manage and navigate. Most people and corporate entities that deal heavily with intellectual property rights turn to a professional to ensure that they are protected from malicious intellectual property claims. Firms like GHB Intellect help you to protect your rights and defend your claims. We help manage and monitor your intellectual property by providing litigation support, development support, and engineering.