Intellectual property (IP) is everywhere. It can be a piece of music, a novel, an advertising slogan, a formula, or an invention. The most common categories of intellectual property rights are trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets.
And just like physical property, intellectual property needs to be protected.
Intellectual property laws
Intellectual property laws are created to obtain, protect, and enforce IP rights. "Most IP laws come from the U.S. Constitution and relate to patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets," says Kevin Bell, a Washington, D.C., intellectual property lawyer.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office ("USPTO") grants patents and trademarks, while the United States Copyright Office ("Copyright Office") allows people to register works of art, literature, software code, etc., as copyrights.
Trade secrets involve specific information for formulas or recipes, intentionally maintained as a secret because it gives the owner a competitive edge in the marketplace. Federal and state laws protect trade secrets.
Trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets
Trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets are the main categories of intellectual property rights and they work differently under the law. Bell explains how each intellectual property right works:
Trademarks normally protect brands and the logos used on goods and services. For instance, the word "Coca-Cola" in its cursive script is a trademark. These are the steps to obtain a trademark:
- File an application and select what types of goods and services you want to use for the trademark.
- A trademark examiner reviews the application to determine if anyone has already registered the same or similar mark. If not, the trademark is published in a public register to allow anyone to object.
- If there is no objection, the trademark is approved.
- A trademark remains in effect for potentially unlimited consecutive 10-year periods as long as the owner meets the legal requirements for renewals.
An author has immediate copyright as soon as he or she writes, draws, or designs a respective work. An individual may file an application to receive a federal registration for a copyright via mail, online, or in person. A registered copyright normally lasts for the author's lifetime plus an additional 70 years.
Patents protect novel ideas, processes, and inventions. After inventors file a patent application with the USPTO, an examiner reviews it and determines if the invention is patentable and has not been previously invented by another individual.
The examiner and patent seeker engage in several back-and-forth rounds debating on whether or not the patent should be granted. If the owner receives a patent, it is valid for 20 years from the application's filing or 17 years from the patent's issuance, whichever is longer.
A trade secret is private, specific information that provides its owner an economic edge over competitors. To maintain a trade secret, the owner must do the following:
- Take all reasonable steps to maintain the trade secret.
- Control physical and electronic access to it.
- Limit the number of people who have access to it.
- Obtain employees' agreement to maintain secrecy.
- Use nondisclosure agreements with any party that requires you to share the information, such as a regulatory agency.
- Label documents with a trade secret stamp or watermark.
Protecting people and encouraging innovation
If you invented a novel product like an air fryer or if you come up with a catchy slogan, then you should receive credit for your idea. Intellectual property law mandates "others cannot use IP without the owner's permission," says Bell.
IP laws protect people and companies from others stealing their intellectual property and impacting their financial interests. But ultimately, Bell says that IP laws "encourage more people to come up with new ideas, inventions, works of art, literature, and music, which fosters to create new things and improve old things."