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What is Intellectual Property Law? - Definition and Rights

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  • 0:05 Intellectual Property
  • 1:57 Intellectual Property…
  • 3:17 Types of Intellectual Property
  • 8:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Intellectual property is a broad term that applies to many different types of original creations. Businesses use intellectual property law to protect innovative and marketable works created in someone's mind. This lesson explains this special type of property law.

Intellectual Property

Let's take a look at a special type of property that all businesses own, and the laws that protect that property. Every business has some form of intellectual property. The term intellectual property actually refers to many different types of property. However, this category of property is unique. Intellectual property is original property created in someone's mind. It can be a play, a novel, a product invention, a marketing plan, a logo or many other things. But, note that not every idea will be classified as intellectual property. To be intellectual property, the idea must be marketable and valuable in some manner.

Though there are many different types, all intellectual property is innovative, developed through a creative process, and intangible. These are the characteristics that set intellectual property apart from other types of property. However, intellectual property is handled in the same way as tangible personal property or real property. It can be owned, sold, leased, or gifted much like all other property.

Our intellectual property laws protect this unique type of property by sheltering the rights of those who create the property. There are many federal laws and state tort claims that work to provide certain protections for products that were created out of a person's own mental process, and establish ownership for marketable ideas. These laws and protections are designed to help the creator feel secure in his or her rights to the property, and provide exclusive benefit to the creator, while hopefully encouraging new inventions and technologies.

Intellectual Property Law and Businesses

Let's look at my business and all of the ways I use intellectual property and the laws that protect intellectual property. I own Barks and Bubbles. At my pet-grooming salon, I use a special shampoo that I designed myself. It cleans dog hair, while preventing fleas and ticks, and also smells like orange blossoms. This is my special concoction and one of the main things that makes my salon special and unique.

Let's say that a new pet-grooming business opens next door to mine. This business uses a very similar pink logo, and is called Wash and Woof. This business advertises that it uses a special dog shampoo that smells like citrus. I'm furious and think that I'm losing customers to this new business. Can they copy me like this? I'm headed to see my lawyer and find out.

My lawyer explains that there are many different types of intellectual property that businesses own and use, and that I may have some protections provided by intellectual property laws. Here are a few examples of intellectual property rights that I might own:

  • Patents
  • Trademarks
  • Service marks
  • Copyrights
  • Trade secrets

Types of Intellectual Property

I need to figure out which types of intellectual property I use, and what steps I've taken to protect my business ideas. Then I'll know if I have a cause of action against the new business. Intellectual property laws work by protecting my property interests, but in most cases I need to take proactive steps to protect my work.

Let's start with patents. Patents are used to protect new, and sometimes improved, products. Patents guard inventions. The owner of a patent has the exclusive right to make, sell, or otherwise use and profit from a tangible item for a certain period of time. A business or individual must apply for a patent through our government's United States Patent and Trademark Office in order to obtain one.

Luckily, when I invented my new dog shampoo years ago, my lawyer helped me apply for and obtain a patent. My special shampoo is protected. The other salon can say they use a similar shampoo, but they can't use my exact recipe without infringing on my patent. If they infringe on my patent, I can sue for money damages. Infringement is a civil cause of action based on one party misusing another party's right.

Now let's look at trademarks. Trademarks are used to protect logos or brands. Trademarks help distinguish businesses from one another. The right to a trademark is automatically assumed once a business starts using a unique and particular name or logo. Note that a business doesn't have to file an application to own the rights to the work and to keep others from using the same work, though a trademark can be registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Similarly, service marks are a type of trademark. Service marks are used to protect new or innovative services. Service marks help distinguish businesses that provide services from one another. Service marks work the same as trademarks, but are exclusively used by businesses that are service providers. Lawyers, doctors, landscapers and hairstylists are just a few examples of service providers.

I'm a service provider and I registered my pink logo and the name Barks and Bubbles. The new business can't infringe on my service mark. They can use something similar, but they can't use my exact name and logo, or a name and logo that are so similar to mine that a customer might be confused. If they do, I can sue for service mark infringement and possibly collect money damages.

What about copyrights? Copyrights are used to protect original written works, including software and databases. Copyrights protect expressions, or the written work that comes out of a creative idea. Copyrights don't protect the actual idea. A copyright gives the owner exclusive rights to reproduce, display, perform, and otherwise use the creative work. The copyright owner also has exclusive rights to benefit financially from the work. A business or individual must apply for a copyright through our government's United States Copyright Office in order to obtain one.

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