Intellectual property disputes have become increasingly common in the digital age. We are all exposed to more content than ever before, and sourcing is often murky.
Although intellectual-property infringement can be unintentional, it still unacceptable under the eyes of the law. The most common examples of intellectual property disputes include using another's words, images, or logo without the property owner's permission.
Types of intellectual property
There are four main types of intellectual property: copyright, trademark, patent, and trade secret. The term "intellectual property (sometimes called “IP" for short) covers all types of intangible creations, but the type of protection that applies depends on the specific type of work:
- Copyrights protect creative works that are either printed or digital. Common examples that fall under copyright are literary works, images or photographs, and movies.
- Trademarks protect a word, phrase, mark, symbol, or logo used to identify the source of goods as a particular company — essentially, any branding. Think, for example, of the apple on Apple computers.
- Patents protect inventions. Inventors may patent a process or method, a machine, a manufactured article, or a new pharmaceutical.
- Trade secrets are just what they sound like—the inner workings of a business, often protected by nondisclosure agreements signed by employees. Trade secrets are common in the research and development industry and may include formulas, client lists, and processes and methods. The recipe for Coca-Cola is the classic example of a trade secret.
Note that some creations may be protected by more than one type of intellectual property. A musical artist's body of work, for example, may included copyrighted musical works as well as a trademark logo or design.
Examples of intellectual property disputes
The most common types of intellectual property disputes are likely to be related to either copyright infringement, trademark infringement, or patent infringement. These arise when individuals or businesses, including small businesses, discover that others are using their intellectual property without permission:
- Copyright infringement: Someone has used your creative work—words or images, most likely—without your permission. In this case, if you haven't already registered your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, you should consider doing so in order to recover damages in the federal court system.
- Trademark infringement: Someone is using the same word, phrase, mark, symbol, or logo as you are using to sell similar products, potentially confusing consumers. If you haven't registered your trademark yet, you would gain additional legal protection by doing so. Forms and other information on registering a trademark are available on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's website.
- Patent infringement: Someone is making, using, selling, or offering to sell something that contains every element of your patented claims. Because patented inventions often contain several different parts and give rise to more than one patent, an infringement claim could become complicated. To file a patent or search for one, use the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's website.
Trade secrets may also be the subject of an intellectual property dispute, although these tend to arise in corporate contexts. That said, even small businesses can keep trade secrets, so you shouldn't ignore this possibility if you are a business owner.
If you are concerned that someone is infringing on your intellectual property, address it as soon as possible. While you don't necessarily need a lawyer to do so, legal advice can be extremely helpful to ensure you are protecting your intellectual property rights effectively. Remedies for intellectual property infringement may include injunctions (stopping the infringer's behavior) and monetary damages.
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