The Basics of Intellectual Property Law
General Goals of Intellectual Property Law
- protect innovation
- help consumers identify the source of goods/services
- protect creative works
- protect information
Areas of IP Law That Achieve These Goals
Patent law gives patent holders the exclusive right to make, use, and sell the patented subject matter. Patentable subject matter is generally something tangible that does not already exist in nature.
Patents do not protect intellectual property covered by the other areas of IP law, including creative expression, business identification, or information.
Patents operate under federal law and are filed nationally at the USPTO. Therefore, patents protect inventions across the US upon filing. To receive protection in another county, one must file a patent application with that country’s patent office.
Trademarks protect a business’ use of identifying marks in commerce. This includes business names, logos, phrases, and can even include colors in some circumstances.
Trademark protection can be obtained by filing a trademark application with the USPTO or by obtaining enough renown in a market.
Trademarks are best used to prevent copycat businesses from stealing the goodwill and reputation of a business. Trademarks seek to prevent confusion in a market as to the source of goods or services.
Copyrights protect the creative expression of a person. This includes music lyrics, recordings, literature, performances, and many more creative works.
A person is protected by Copyright law immediately when they express their creative idea onto a tangible medium. That means words are not protected until written, and sounds are not protected until recorded.
Although a person is protected immediately, they cannot sue for infringement immediately. A person must register for a Copyright with the US Copyright Office before they have the right to sue for Copyright infringement.
Trade Secrets Law
Trade Secrets refers to a business’ proprietary information. Trade Secrets can be thought of as Confidential Information, and refers to any information that gives a business a competitive advantage.
Trade Secrets are very general and include all information that a business has an interest in not sharing with competitors. This includes methods of operation, business strategies, customer lists, vendor prices, etc.
To receive Trade Secret protection, a business must make reasonable efforts to keep the protected information confidential. Courts look to the efforts made by the business to make this determination, and Courts consider:
- whether access to the information is limited to certain personnel
- whether access to the storage of the information is limited
- whether the information is marked as “Confidential”
- whether any agreements exist regarding Confidentiality or handling of information
Trade Secrets law has a direct relation to employment contracts, Non-disclosure Agreements (NDAs), and Confidentiality Agreements. Trade Secrets law gives non-compete provisions within employment contracts the legal support for enforcement.
Even if Trade Secrets are protected under contracts, Courts will only enforce this protection if the business has a legitimate interest in doing so. For example, a business might not have a legitimate interest in preventing a janitor from working for a competitor to “protect customer information” since that janitor likely never interacted with customers to receive information and never had a reason to review records.
There are four general areas of intellectual property law. Within these areas are complex legal nuances that must be understood to properly protect your information. Contact an experienced intellectual property attorney for more information.
I started my law firm straight out of law school as a business law firm in Ohio. I went back to school and acquired my patent license while growing my firm. After practicing law for 4 years, I decided to transition my practice into exclusively patent law. Then, I decided to transition out of solo practice and join a team of attorneys and paralegals. Now, I run the business law and patent law departments of Doucet Law.