Know The Law: Intellectual Property Rights
Broadly taken, intellectual property refers to “creations of the human mind” that may have potential commercial value. Intellectual property can be thought of as a business or personal asset, although often intangible, in the same way as a factory, a home, or a bank account. The international body that oversees matters relating to intellectual property and the rights to its use, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), defines intellectual property to include:
- Artistic, literary, and scientific works
- Performances of performing artists such as recordings and broadcasts,
- Scientific discoveries
- Trademarks, slogans, and other identifiers of specific businesses or products
The right to publish, market, or license the use of intellectual property belongs exclusively to its creator. In many cases, such works are developed as a part of an ongoing business operation and the business itself may be considered to be the owner of the intellectual property of its employees. The field of law that is concerned with the ownership of, and rights associated with, intellectual property is known as intellectual property law. Although there are some differences in how intellectual property law is applied and interpreted by different nations, and even among their states and provinces, its best-known applications are related to copyrights, patents, and trademarks.
A copyright gives the creator of an original work the exclusive right to benefit from its use for a legally-specified period of time. In the United States, copyright protection exists for the lifetime of the work’s creator plus an additional 70 years after the creator’s death. Materials that can be copyrighted include artwork; photographs; books; newspapers; music; motion pictures and television productions, and computer software. Anyone who reproduces the copyrighted work of another without permission is said to have infringed on that copyright. Violations of copyright law may be punished by either criminal charges, a civil lawsuit, or by both.
In the United States, a patent is a document issued by the federal government giving an inventor the exclusive right to benefit from his invention for a certain period of time in exchange for its public disclosure and registration. Currently, patents exist for a period of 20 years and may be renewed although patents for drugs and biomedical technologies may only be valid for a shorter period of time. Violations of patent law are also called infringements and, as is the case with copyrights, may be subject to criminal and/or civil prosecution.
A trademark is a distinctive name, symbol, design, word, phrase, or sound used to indicate that the products or services associated with that trademark originated from a unique source. Unlike a patent or a copyright, a trademark exists so long as it is in regular use. Regular use means that the trademark appears continuously over time in association with a specific product or service. Trademarks do not have to be registered with a government agency, although it is deemed advisable to do so in order to successfully prosecute possible later trademark infringements.
Questions regarding rights involving intellectual property can be quite complicated and are often legally and technically complex. As an example, the recent court decision in the ongoing legal battle between Apple and its telecommunications rival, Samsung, was based on issues related to Apple’s exclusive rights to intellectual property related to its iPhone and iPad products. Apple was able to successfully argue that Samsung had copied and used, without Apple’s consent, certain technology that was Apple’s exclusive intellectual property.
Given the complexity of the laws regarding intellectual property, questions regarding any of the above-listed areas should be directed to an attorney experienced in these matters.