Intellectual Property Law




What is Intellectual Property Law?

Intellectual property law deals with the rules for securing and enforcing legal rights to inventions, designs, and artistic works. Just as the law protects ownership of personal property and real estate, so too does it protect the exclusive control of intangible assets. The purpose of these laws is to give an incentive for people to develop creative works that benefit society, by ensuring they can profit from their works without fear of misappropriation by others.

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress express authority to grant authors and inventors exclusive rights to their creations. Section 8 also gives Congress the power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce, providing further support for its right to legislate in this area. Intellectual property laws passed by Congress are administered by two government agencies, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the U.S. Copyright Office.

Patents give inventors the right to use their product in the marketplace, or to profit by transferring that right to someone else. Depending on the type of invention, patent rights are valid for up to 20 years. Qualifying items include new machines, technological improvements, and manufactured goods, including the “look” of a product. Patent protection will be denied if an invention is found to be obvious in design, not useful, or morally offensive.

Trademarks protect symbols, names, and slogans used to identify goods and services. The purpose is to avoid confusion, deter misleading advertising, and help consumers distinguish one brand from another. Since the goal is to distinguish, generic or purely descriptive marks may not qualify. Rights can potentially last forever, and they are obtained by simply using a mark. While not required, owners can register their marks for additional protection.

Copyrights apply to writings, music, motion pictures, architecture, and other original intellectual and artistic expressions. Protection is not available for theories or ideas, or anything that has not been captured in a fixed medium. The act of creation itself produces a copyright and unpublished works are still protected. Use of a copyright symbol and date is common, but not mandatory. Most copyrights are valid for the creator’s lifetime, plus 70 years.

Protecting Against Infringement

Infringement refers to the unauthorized use of intellectual property. To protect against infringement, owners should take steps to put the world on notice that their rights exist. Providing notice helps deter infringement by making the owner’s rights more visible to those who might inadvertently violate them. It also triggers additional legal benefits, and puts the owner in a better position to prosecute an infringement in court, if that becomes necessary.

Inventors can give notice of their rights by marking their product with the patent number assigned to it by the Patent and Trademark Office. The label “patent pending” can also be used to discourage others from copying the design before the patent is awarded. Notice of trademarks and copyrights is given by placing the appropriate symbol (™, ©, etc.) on the material, and then registering the mark or copyright, so it can be added to the government’s database.

If infringement does occur, rights to intellectual property can be enforced in federal court. Before filing a lawsuit, however, owners will want to consult with an attorney and carefully consider whether litigation is in their best interests. Infringement cases are expensive to prosecute, and there is always a risk that the owner’s rights, once held up to the scrutiny of a court proceeding, will be revealed as invalid or less extensive than the owner believed.

In the event an owner of intellectual property does sue, and the lawsuit is successful, a number of remedies will be available. The court can order an injunction, meaning the infringer must stop what it is doing. Substantial money damages may also be available. In addition, once the owner’s rights are established in court, the infringer may agree to a license agreement. This allows use of the intellectual property to continue, with payments going to the owner.

Rights to intellectual property can be incredibly lucrative, making individuals huge sums of money. Infringement claims have also bankrupted large, profitable companies without warning. With so much at stake, anyone dealing with issues in this area of the law should seek the advice of an attorney. Firms specializing in intellectual property law are available to help owners who are looking to establish, profit from, or defend their rights.

Get Help from an IP Attorney

If you have created or obtained the rights to something unique, an intellectual property attorney can help you protect your interests. Conversely, if someone has accused you of infringement, you want legal counsel to help you fight back. Contact an attorney today to learn more.

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