Categories of Intellectual Property

Intellectual property issues come up every day in business. Intellectual property may put a business in financial turmoil if a company gets sued for infringing the intellectual property of another company, or help a company get out of debt if the business is able to license the intellectual property to generate revenue or get awarded a huge settlement or judgment in an infringement claim.

For startups such software companies, which may be financially strapped, intellectual property issues arise in license grants, contractual obligations, and competitor identification symbols. For retailers, such as small business clothing stores, intellectual property issues arise in the design of clothing, shoes, and accessories. For restaurants, such as the local dim sum, intellectual property issues are found in food and drink recipes, and customer service processes. Common categories of intellectual property include patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets.

Trademarks are logos, words, symbols, phrases, smells, colors, or sounds used to identify companies, products, or services, and distinguish services, products, or companies from those of others. In the United States, an individual or business can get trademark rights by using the trademark or registering it with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. When someone obtains trademark rights through use of an identification symbol, the symbol is known as a common law trademark. With a common law trademark, the protection of the symbol as a trademark extends only to the geography where the symbol is used.

Patents offer a legal monopoly in manufacture, use, and sale of inventions. To obtain a patent in the United States, an inventor needs to file a patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. When granted, an inventor gets a right by the government of the United States to not allow others from using, making, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States for a certain time period in exchange for disclosing the invention to the public so others can learn from it.

In the United States, copyrights arise in the moment any expressible form of information or idea fixes to a medium, regardless of notice or registration. Copyrights are automatic. For example, a student taking notes in class automatically has copyrights to the notes from the moment they are written. Copyright owners have exclusive rights to copy, distribute, and adapt their works.

Trade secrets are information that businesses and individuals keep secret to give them a competitive edge. The information can be ideas, devices, business processes, formulas, or recipes. Companies protect trade secrets with non-disclosure agreements. A non-disclosure agreement is a contract, where the parties agree not to let the public know information that a party desires to keep confidential.

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