You may have a copyright, trademark, or patent to protect your intellectual property in the US—but what about abroad? Can your trademarked logo, copyrighted work, or patented invention be used without your permission in a foreign country? Here's an overview of the most popular intellectual property protections and how they apply outside the United States.
According to copyright.gov, the online face of the US Copyright Office, a copyright is grounded in the US Constitution and protects your "original works of authorship." This can include written works (such as novels or plays), creative projects, and even computer programs. However, copyright does not protect the ideas themselves; it protects them as they're expressed in a work or project.
The US Copyright Office maintains copyright relations with some foreign countries, so international acknowledgment and protection of your copyright may be possible—but only in certain countries. There are other countries that offer no copyright protection to foreign works. To see details on each country's copyright agreements with the US, see copyright Circular 38a (pdf).
Businesses often use trademarks to protect their unique brand identities—a TM, SM, or ¨ symbol next to a name, logo, or other identifying mark indicates that the mark has been claimed as a trademark or service mark.
Filing a US trademark is the first step to protecting your trademark internationally. International trademark registration is available through the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), but in order to be eligible for international registration, the trademark must first be filed with a member country's trademark office. US trademarks can also be registered with US Customs to prevent items carrying infringing marks from being imported into the US.
Simply put, a patent protects an invention or discovery. Obtaining a patent for your invention is a smart way to discourage others from making and using—or profiting from—your work. Obtaining a patent in the US does not guarantee international protection of your intellectual property—USPTO patents are only effective in the US.
There is no "international patent" that will protect an invention all over the world. A separate patent must be filed in each country where the patent owner seeks protection. Fortunately, WIPO offers a Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) application, which simplifies the application process and allows one application to be filed for patent protection in multiple countries. Patent fees and requirements differ significantly by country, so it is advisable to consult a registered patent attorney who is familiar with the intellectual property laws of the specific countries where a patent is sought.
Know the Law
All three of the intellectual protections above have various regulations both here and abroad. If your idea requires international protection, be sure to review the laws of the country in which you wish to protect it. Knowing your rights and the types of coverage available for your intellectual property can help guard what's yours and maintain your peace of mind.
US Copyright Office
US Patent and Trademark Office
World Intellectual Property Organization