Inventing a product or creating a piece of art is exciting and ultimately rewarding. However, when you’re finally finished, and you want to share your product, there are some risks you need to consider. How can you guarantee that you are given credit for your work? How can you protect yourself from bigger companies, organizations, and the online community who may try to steal or copy what you’ve created?
It’s essential to know and understand your intellectual property rights. Intellectual property is the guarantee of exclusive rights to authors and inventors. Thanks to intellectual property protections, companies and individuals who are caught duplicating and copying protected products can face heavy penalties.
The US Patent System is often credited for the innovative American spirit. The protections granted by patents enabled great innovators like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs to build global businesses around their creations. President Abraham Lincoln once praised the protection, calling it “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”
So what types of intellectual property are available, and what are they used for?
The best-known form of protection, a patent gives the property right to the inventor. Essentially, if you disclose the details of your invention and can prove it is novel, useful and non-obvious, you can obtain protection for a limited time, usually 20 years. Patents cover inventive products and business methods from infringement. Even more abstract intellectual property, such as software development, can be granted patent protection. With the ongoing boom in new computer technologies, many recent courtroom patent battles have focused on web based innovation and software programming.
A copyright is generally a protection given to authors on “original works of authorship.” Copyright gives exclusive rights for copying, displaying, and distributing the work to the author only and to those the author licenses or otherwise authorizes. These protections cover music, art, videography, photography, and even software. That FBI warning you see at the start of every movie is a reminder of the potential implications of pirating a copyrighted work.
Trademarks are words, names, symbols, or devices intended to be used by a business to distinguish its brand from other competitors and manufacturers. The Target bull’s-eye and the Mercedes logo are examples of materials that have been trademarked. This protection helps the company distinguish itself in the market and manage and protect its own reputation. Trademarks also help the consumer to avoid confusion by providing exclusive rights to logos, product designs, and even packaging.
Trade secrets differ from other types of intellectual property in that they protect undisclosed/secret business-related information, rather than information filed or published with government protection. The recipe for Coca-Cola and Google’s algorithm are both examples of this type of intellectual property. Generally, a trade secret must meet certain statutory requirements such as:
1) It cannot be obvious, something like “how to make a pb&j sandwich.” It must be generally not known by the larger public.
2) It must provide the owner with a competitive or economic advantage.
3) It must be reasonably protected from disclosure.
Identifying and properly protecting trade secrets can be challenging but is worth it if such secrets truly do offer the competitive or economic advantage.
Taking advantage of the various forms of intellectual property protection can be time consuming and sometimes pricey, whether you hire a patent lawyer or expert or decide to do it yourself. No matter your approach, protecting your work can be a worth the investment and doing it right and involving the right advisors and experts along the way can save you competitively, financially, and in the courtroom, if and when that time comes.