Intellectual Property Law 101

Understanding patents, copyrights and trademarks.

Intellectual property is defined as anything spawned by the human intellect that is original and non-obvious with some marketplace value: a bestselling book, a software program, a movie, or a perfume scent, for example.

This type of law strives to protect ideas and inventors in order to encourage research and innovation. The term "intellectual property" encompasses patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets. These are defined as follows:

  • Patent: A legal monopoly, granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the manufacture, use, and sale of an invention. A patent is valid for up to 20 years.

  • Copyright: A legal device giving the owner the right to control how their creative work is used. A copyright is comprised of a number of exclusive rights, including the right to make copies or authorize others to do so.

  • Trademark: What a business uses to identify a product and distinguish it from competitors. It can be a word, phrase, logo, color, sound or even a smell. The U.S. Patent and Trademark office handles the registration and recommends that owners always place the trademark registration symbol (®) next to their mark.

  • Trade secrets: Information that companies keep secret to give them an advantage over their competitors. The world's most famous trade secret is the formula for Coca-Cola®.

If you have an idea or invention, you may require the assistance of a qualified intellectual property attorney to ensure that you have all rights to your work.

See these profiles of intellectual property law attorneys.

Hiring this type of attorney will keep others from profiting off your work.

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