Copyright and Other Kinds of Intellectual Property

Copyright and Other Kinds of Intellectual Property

There are several types of intellectual property and copyright protection is limited to a few of them. For creations such as inventions and trade names, other types of protections must be used. The following are the different types of protections available for intellectual property.

  • Copyright. Copyright protection is given to original works of authorship (e.g. written works, musical works, visual works, or performance works) that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. One cannot copyright titles, names, slogans, or works not fixed in tangible form (e.g. paper, film, disk, audio or visual tape, canvas, marble). A work is eligible from the moment of creation, and if created on or after January 1, 1978, gives the author and his or her heirs the exclusive right to the work for the life of the author plus seventy years. Copyrights are registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, a department of the Library of Congress. Examples of copyrightable works are books, paintings, songs, poems, plays, drawings, sculptures, and films.
  • Trademark. A trademark is a name or symbol used to identify goods or services. It can consist of letters, numerals, packaging, labeling, musical notes, colors, or a combination of these. The trademark owner owns the use of that trademark to identify a particular good or service. A trademark can last indefinitely if it is used continuously and trademark registration can remain valid if renewed properly. Trademarks are registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
  • Patent. A patent is protection given to new and useful inventions and designs. A work must be completely new and non-obvious to be entitled to a patent. A patent is granted to the first inventor who files for the patent. Once an invention is patented, no one else can make use of it, even if they discovered it independently after a lifetime of research.

Generally, the term for a patent for inventions is twenty years from the application’s filing date, and for designs is fifteen years from the date of grant. Patents cannot be renewed. The application must clearly explain how to make the invention so that when the patent expires it will be available for others to freely make and use. Patents are registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

  • Trade Secret. A trade secret is information or a process that provides a commercial advantage that is protected by keeping it a secret. Examples of trade secrets may be a list of successful distributors, a formula, such as for Coca-Cola, or some unique source code in a computer program. Trade secrets are not registered anywhere. They are protected by the fact that they are not disclosed and are protected for as long as they are kept secret. However, trade secrets are still guarded by state law. If a trade secret is stolen or improperly disclosed, and the owner can prove the secret is well-protected, the state or federal government may help them enforce their legal rights.
  • Unprotectable. Some things are just unprotectable. Things such as ideas, systems, and discoveries are not protectable by law. If you have a great idea, such as selling packets of hangover medicine in bars, you cannot stop others from doing the same thing. If you invent a new medicine, you can patent it; if you choose a distinctive name for it, you can trademark it; and if you create a unique picture for the package, you can copyright it. Nonetheless, your basic business idea of selling hangover medicine in bars cannot be protected.

It is important to consider all of these types of protection before deciding which one to rely on for protection of your work. For a formula such as Coca-Cola, trade secret protection would be better than a patent since a patent would have expired after only twenty years. For some computer programs, a patent might be better than a copyright since it would keep others from developing the process independently. The shorter period of protection offered by a patent would not matter since computer software evolves so rapidly. While the name of a book cannot be copyrighted, you may trademark a name that distinguishes your book from others.