Best-known intellectual property protections

1. Copyright

Copyright is the protection given to songs, computer programs, books, and other creative works; any work that has an “author” can be copyrighted. Under the terms of copyright, the author of a work controls what can be done with the work, including:

• Who can make copies of the work.
• Who can make derivative works from the original work.
• Who can perform the work publicly.
• Who can display the work publicly.
• Who can distribute the work.

Many times, a work is not owned by an individual but is instead owned by a publisher with whom the original author has an agreement. In return for the rights to the work, the publisher will market and distribute the work and then pay the original author a portion of the proceeds.

Copyright protection lasts for the life of the original author plus seventy years. In the case of a copyrighted work owned by a publisher or another third party, the protection lasts for ninety-five years from the original creation date.

2. Patent

Another important form of intellectual property protection is the patent. A patent creates protection for someone who invents a new product or process. The definition of invention is quite broad and covers many different fields. Here are some examples of items receiving patents:

• circuit designs in semiconductors
• prescription drug formulas
• firearms
• locks
• plumbing
• engines
• coating processes
• business processes.

Once a patent is granted, it provides the inventor with protection from others infringing on his or her patent.

Unlike copyright, a patent is not automatically granted when someone has an interesting idea and writes it down. In most countries, a patent application must be submitted to a government patent office. A patent will only be granted if the invention or process being submitted meets certain conditions:

• It must be original. The invention being submitted must not have been submitted before.
• It must be non-obvious. You cannot patent something that anyone could think of. For example, you could not put a pencil on a chair and try to get a patent for a pencil-holding chair.
• It must be useful. The invention being submitted must serve some purpose or have some use that would be desired.

3. Trademark

A trademark is a word, phrase, logo, shape or sound that identifies a source of goods or services. For example, the Nike “Swoosh,” the Facebook “f”, and Apple’s apple (with a bite taken out of it) are all trademarked. The concept behind trademarks is to protect the consumer. Imagine going to the local shopping center to purchase a specific item from a specific store and finding that there are several stores all with the same name.

Two types of trademarks exist – a common-law trademark and a registered trademark. As with copyright, an organization will automatically receive a trademark if a word, phrase, or logo is being used in the normal course of business (subject to some restrictions, discussed below). A common-law trademark is designated by placing “TM” next to the trademark. A registered trademark has the circle-R (R) placed next to the trademark.

While most any word, phrase, logo, shape, or sound can be trademarked, there are a few limitations. A trademark will not hold up legally if it meets one or more of the following conditions:

1. The trademark is likely to cause confusion with a mark in a registration or prior application. 

2. The trademark is merely descriptive for the goods/services. For example, trying to register the trademark “blue” for a blue product you are selling will not pass muster. 

3. The trademark is a geographic term. 

4. The trademark is a surname. You will not be allowed to trademark “Smith’s Bookstore.” 

5. The trademark is ornamental as applied to the goods. For example, a repeating flower pattern that is a design on a plate cannot be trademarked. 

As long as an organization uses its trademark and defends it against infringement, the protection afforded by it does not expire. Because of this, many organizations defend their trademark against other companies whose branding even only slightly copies their trademark.

4. Privacy

The term privacy has many definitions, but for our purposes, privacy will mean the ability to control information about oneself. Our ability to maintain our privacy has eroded substantially in the past decades, due to information systems. 

Personally Identifiable Information - Information about a person that can be used to uniquely establish that person’s identify is called personally identifiable information, or PII. This is a broad category that includes information such as;

• Name
• Social security number
• Date of birth
• Place of birth
• Mother‘s maiden name
• Biometric records (fingerprint, face, etc.)
• Medical records
• Educational records
• Financial information
• Employment information.


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