Intellectual Property

Intellectual property is a blanket term for multiple areas of law that govern the ownership and rights to "products of the mind." Many, but not all, intellectual property laws seek to encourage innovation and creativity, with an ultimate aim of promoting a general benefit to society. They typically do so by granting a bundle of rights to the originator of the work or creation. Intellectual property encompasses four areas of law, each of which governs creations of different types and promotes different policies:

Copyright: Copyright law protects the fruits of creative efforts, called "original works of authorship" in legal terminology. A copyright owner enjoys the exclusive right to reproduce the work, distribute it, display or perform it, and to create derivative works from it, as well as the ability to transfer any or all of these rights. Copyright protection generally lasts for seventy years beyond the death of the original author. Copyright's purpose is to stimulate the production of creative works by giving authors a financial incentive to create new works. Examples of copyrightable works include blog posts, photographs, videos, podcasts, news articles, musical compositions, and computer software.  See the Copyright section in this guide for more information.

Trademark: Trademark law creates usage rights in words, phrases, symbols, and other indicators that identify the source or sponsorship of goods or services. The owner of a valid trademark can stop others from using its trademark or a similar mark in connection with similar goods and services. The owner of a famous trademark may also stop others from using it in connection with dissimilar goods or services. The main purpose of trademark law is to protect consumers from confusion about the source of a particular good or service, and a secondary purpose is to protect companies that have spent time, effort, and money to create a positive association between their trademarks and their goods and services. Examples of trademarks include the word "Cheerios" for breakfast cereal, the Apple logo for computers, and YouTube's slogan "Broadcast Yourself" for video-hosting services.  Website domain names can also, in certain circumstances, be trademarks.  See the Trademark section in this guide for more information.

Trade Secrets: Trade secrets law protects secret information that a company or other organization creates or compiles to give it an economic advantage over its competitors. A trade secret owner can stop others from acquiring its trade secret through improper means, such as theft, trespass, hacking, or breach of a confidentiality agreement, or from disclosing it to others under certain circumstances. Trade secrets law is aimed at encouraging research and innovation and maintaining high standards of commercial morality. Examples of trade secrets include the technical specs of an unreleased product, confidential customer lists, and manufacturing processes and formulas.  See the Trade Secrets section in this guide for more information.

Patent: Patent law provides ownership rights and protection for unique processes, procedures, methods, inventions, and discoveries. It gives the patent owner the exclusive right to exploit (i.e. create, use, sell, distribute) the invention for a limited period of time (typically twenty years from the time of a patent application filing). Patent law's purpose is to spur innovation by giving inventors a financial incentive to invent. We do not cover patent law in this guide. For general information, see the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's General Information Concerning Patents.