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Pre-Law Resource on Copyright, Patents and Trademarks

The United States legal system provides certain rights and protections for owners of intellectual property. Intellectual property refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions of tangible items, literary works, musical composition, designs, and the symbols, names, and images used in business. The rights and protections granted to owners of intellectual property fall under federal patent, trademark, and copyright laws. Patents, trademarks, and copyrights function differently from another, but each grants protection from infringement. In general, patents protect inventions of tangible items or processes that provide a new way of doing something. Trademarks protect a name or symbol associated with a source of goods or services. Copyrights protect various forms of written and artistic expression. Infringing on any of the aforementioned protections granted to the intellectual property rights owner could result in legal recourse. Inventors, business owners, writers, musicians, and website administrators all have a vested interest in protecting their intellectual property rights.

Authors and artists share a vested interest in copyrights to protect their literary and artistic works. Copyrighted material includes books, musical compositions, paintings, computer programs, advertisements, databases, technical drawings, maps, and even sculptures. In general, copyright law covers creative expressions but excludes ideas, procedures, mathematical concepts, and methods of operation. Titles, slogans, and logos may or may not fall under copyright law protections. It depends on whether these creations contain enough authorship to deem it classifiable as copyrighted material.

Copyrights grant two types of rights, including entitlement privileges and the ability to receive financial compensation for the production of the work. Owners of copyrighted material also have the right to oppose changes to the work that could damage the creator's reputation. In fact, the rights owner has the right to authorize or prevent anyone from reproducing, recording, altering, broadcasting, or editing the original work. Any unauthorized attempt at tampering with the original work constitutes as copyright infringement, which carries stiff penalties and fines for those who break the law. In most cases, authors and artists do not need to register their creations to obtain copyright protections; however, many find it beneficial to prove ownership if disputes ever arise.

Inventors have the exclusive right to protect tangible items or processes that provide a new way of doing something with a patent. In order to obtain a patent, investors must disclose technical information about the invention to the public and then submit the appropriate forms. A patent grants the inventor the exclusive right to prevent or stop another party from commercially exploiting the creator's patented design. In other words, a patent protects the invention from being commercially made, distributed, used, imported, or sold by others without the explicit consent of the patent owner. Unfortunately, this only applies to the country or region the patent owner filed the application in to gain intellectual property rights. A patent also has an expiration date, usually twenty years from the date on the application, which ceases the protections guaranteed to the previous owner. When this happens, anyone can commercially exploit the invention without infringing the patent.

Business owners and commercial establishments usually have a vested interest in trademarks. A trademark grants protections over a mark, symbol, or image that distinguishes the goods or services offered by an enterprise. Trademarks may appear as a series of words, letters, and numerals. They may also consist of drawings, symbols, and three-dimensional figures. Anybody can obtain trademark protection by filling out the appropriate application and paying the required fees, usually to the national or regional trademark office. Registration guarantees exclusive rights to the use of a trademark. Owners have the right to license the right to use the trademark in return for payment. Trademark registration provides legal certainty over the rights to commercially use the trademark in case of litigation. The typical trademark usually last about ten years from the date of registration. Trademark owners have the right to pursue litigation in the case of infringement.

Follow these links to learn more about copyright, patent, and trademark law: