The Basics of Intellectual Property

This article will discuss the basics of intellectual property. Businesses develop new products and provide specific services as part of everyday commerce. Many of these goods and services are unique and may require, or at least qualify for, protection as intellectual property. Intellectual property can be defined quite simply as those creations of the mind which can be protected by law. Primarily, these ideas are protected through the use of trademarks, copyrights, patents and trade secrets.

Trademarks are words, logos, sounds, slogans and even symbols which are used to identify specific goods or services and differentiate them from the goods and services sold by another. Examples of trademarks include the brand names of Coca-Cola and McDonalds, logos of companies like Apple and Pepsi and slogans such as Nike’s “Just Do It”. Trademark protection is acquired by simply using the mark in commerce. However, registering the mark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office provides several additional advantages including the legal presumption that you own that trademark and have exclusive rights to use it.

Music, books, articles, plays and movies are examples of material protected by copyright. Such protection is available for original works of authorship, whether published or unpublished, and is automatically granted when the work is created for the first time. When material is copyrighted, the owner of that copyright is granted the exclusive authority to reproduce, distribute, perform, display or transmit the material. While not required, publication and notice of a copyright are important considerations, as is the option to register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration establishes a public record of the copyright and is required for any works created in the United States before a claim for infringement can be filed in court.

Patents are granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to provide a legal right for the exclusive use, manufacture and sale of an invention for a specific period of time. Different types of patents apply to different inventions and provide different protections. A design patent consists of the new and original ornamental characteristics embodied in, or applied to, a manufactured item and lasts for 14 years. A utility patent is issued for inventions which perform some type of new and useful function, process or item, or new and useful improvement of a process or item and lasts for 20 years. Finally, a plant patent is available for the invention or discovery of new strains of asexually reproducing plants and lasts for 17 years.

Trade secrets include confidential or secret information regarding company’s processes, formulas, patterns, and techniques that are used in business and which have independent economic value. Examples of trade secrets include recipes, customer lists, manufacturing processes and sales techniques and methods. Businesses protect this type of intellectual property through the use of confidentiality agreements and other internal security methods. A violation of such an agreement can subject a person to both civil and criminal charges in order to protect these secrets.

Intellectual property considerations should play an important part in a company’s business plan. The ideas and creations of your business have value and, when necessary, should be properly protected. To discuss these matters with our attorneys, please contact our office for a free initial consultation.

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