Business Resources: Understanding Intellectual Property
The term “intellectual property” refers to inventions, writings, designs and other items that result from an individual’s creativity. These items are usually identifiable by their ability to be trademarked or patented to protect their contents from being used or replicated without the creator’s permission. Because intellectual property is often the result of years of hard work and research, it components and other aspects are extremely important to protect: without protecting these items they could easily be misappropriated, resulting in the creator not receiving credit for his work. If designers do not receive credit or payment for their work, there is little incentive to continue creating, which could result in the drastic decrease in the number of new inventions.
The need to protect inventions has resulted in the development of a field of law specifically designed to help creators assert and protect their property rights. This field is called “intellectual property law”. Through these laws creators can establish ownership of an invention and protect and limit their invention’s use. These laws are federal laws, meaning that they are created and enforced by the U.S. federal government. There are four categories of intellectual property protection: patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. These items are regulated by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
A patent grants an inventor the sole rights to his invention and the right to prevent others from using, making or selling his creation without his permission. A patent does not grant permanent rights, but rather only lasts for up to 20 years and cannot be renewed. A technology patent gives the inventor the rights to the technological invention. Computer software programs and hardware, machinery, electrical systems and automobiles are a few items considered technological, and therefore protectable through a technology patent.
Trademarks, Appellations of Origin, and Emblems
A trademark protects a symbol, design or color used by a specific company or individual for identification purposes. Trademarks prevent use of those same colors or symbols to identify another group. Trademarks can be renewed indefinitely. An appellation of origin is a physical location that is essential to the production of an item. Often, these items are known specifically for where they are made. An emblem is a picture that identifies a group or concept, an example of an emblem is a country’s flag. An emblem can also be a trademark.
- Overview of Trademark Law: This page, hosted by Harvard Law School, defines trademarks and provides general information about trademark law.
- Trademarks: This page, provided by the University of Washington, defines trademarks.
- Emblems: Provided by the National Museum of American History, this page defines emblems and contains pictures of some of the more famous emblems.
- Appellations of Origin: This page, provided by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, discusses appellations of origin as it relates to wine.
- The American National Red Cross Emblem: This page discusses the Red Cross’ Emblem and the restrictions on its use by unaffiliated organizations.
Intellectual Property Statistics
The first patent ever granted by the federal government was awarded in 1790 to Samuel Hopkins. Each year the U.S. Patent Office grants hundreds of thousands of patents and recognizes hundreds of thousands of trademarks and copyrights. However, each year there are also hundreds of lawsuits alleging theft of intellectual property. These lawsuits may allege the theft of the idea of the creation, misappropriation of a trademark or theft of a patented device.
- Calendar Year Patent Statistics: This page contains reports about how many patent applications were filed in 2009 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
- Patent Statistics: Compiled by the University of Houston, this page contains statistics about patent litigation.
- Statistics on Trademark Litigation: This page, provided by the William Mitchell College of Law, contains statistics on trademark litigation.
- The Global Intellectual Property Center: This organization focuses on reducing the amount of intellectual property theft. The website contains statistical information about this type of theft and potential steps to reduce or eliminate a majority of that theft.
Laws and Treaties
Intellectual property treaties date as far back as 1883 to the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property. Since then, the international community has established numerous organizations and created treaties to solidify the protection for intellectual property. In 1967 the World International Property Organization (WIPO) was established by the United Nations (UN). The WIPO replaced previously established intellectual property treaty organizations that were not affiliated with the UN.
- National Copyright Laws: This page, provided by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, contains copyright laws in effect all over the world.
- Intellectual Property Treaties: This page contains a list of many worldwide intellectual property treaties. The page is provided by the George Washington University School of Law.
- American Intellectual Property Law Association: The Association’s main website contains information on the types of intellectual property laws and litigation concerning those laws
Intellectual property classifications refer to the system of organization applied to all patents, trademarks and protected materials. When an application to protect intellectual property is filed the patent office searches these classification systems to see if the invention already exists or is claimed by another creator. Traditionally, classification was used mainly in Europe, but recently the U.S. agreed to also rely on the system. There are four classifications: the International Patent Classification (IPC), Nice Classification, Locarno Classification and Vienna Classification. Each of these classification systems organizes trademarks and patents differently.
Intellectual Property Standards
What is considered “intellectual property” depends on how and why the item was created and its purpose. Many times, the items commercial viability is also important. If an item is a new formula, concept or was invented to change the way something is done it is likely intellectual property. An item that substantially alters the design of a pre-existing item may also be intellectual property.
Intellectual property standards can also refer to the item’s conformity with industry standards. This means that to qualify as intellectual property, the item must comply with safety and other requirements for its industry. Conformity indicates that the creator intended his invention to be used, which thereby indicates that it is a unique creation worthy of protection. That an item conforms to industry standards can be used to obtain a patent or defend ownership of the item in court.