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Learning IP

What is Property?

Many people know of the terms Patent, Trademark, Copyright, but do not know the differences between them nor how they function in the economy. One can look up a dictionary definition but sometimes a layman’s definition can serve better.

All three are forms of property. Legally, there are different types of property. The most popular are Real Property such as land, office buildings, apartments, and houses. There is Personal Property which refers to things one can buy like clothes, home furnishings, and cars. There are financial instruments such as stocks, and bonds. Then there is Intellectual Property, one’s ideas.

What is Intellectual Property?

A Patent is several things. First, it is an engineering document. A Patent describes and often illustrates various engineering and scientific principles that make up an invention. Second, it is a legal document, it’s property. Like a house or a piece of land, a Patent (via its claims) defines the legal perimeter in which the invention disclosure covers.

Third, it is a contract with the U.S. government. Per Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution signed in 1787, the U.S. government is very interested in private citizens developing new technology to help create jobs and allow the country to thrive. Therefore, in exchange for an inventor disclosing to the public how to make and use their invention, the U.S. government gives the “patentee” the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, or importing that invention for a set amount of time, about 17 to 18 years.

A Trademark is a brand. Most people are very familiar with brands. All of our clothes, shoes, groceries, automobiles, games, perfume, etc., are brand names that are trademarked with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Similar to patents, a trademark holder is given the right to exclude others from using their mark or one that is “substantially similar” to their registered mark. Unlike patents, which expire after a set term, as long as a company remains in business, the trademark rights may be extended.

A Copyright is literally a “right to copy.” When someone or some company creates an artistic, literary, or similar work, only the creator of that work has the right to make copies of that work for sale.

Each of the types of Intellectual Property may be used on a limited basis such as for teaching and other noble purposes, but no one can make money from the IP except the owner thereof.

Why should one obtain intellectual Property?

A third often missed piece of the filed is: why should one seek to obtain Intellectual Property?

For patents, one reason to seek protection is for inventions that can be copied. If someone can look at your invention and figure out how you made it, or make it in a similar manner, then protecting the finished product with a patent is a good idea. Patents may also be obtained on a particular method of making a product.

Some inventions, like some computer programs, are hard to decipher. For example, the original Google search algorithm was never patented. The two original founders of Google determined that no one could easily copy their search engine strategy. By keeping it secret, known as a “trade secret,” Google was able to obtain a competitive edge on other companies.

Trademarks and Copyrights are a little different than Patents because the former take effect as soon as they are made public. If a company uses a name and puts the “TM” symbol next to it, they are afforded some protection. Similarly, an author can use the © symbol next to a published work to let the public know that the work cannot be copied. Federal registration of Trademarks and Copyrights garners more protection, allowing a plaintiff to seek damages in federal court.

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