The Intellectual Property Jungle

Artists, writers and inventors transform ideas into tangible property—intellectual property. Any product of the human mind that can be protected under law is intellectual property. The field of intellectual property is a jungle of rights, protections and rules. It is complex, evolving and often not clearly understood among sign makers. The basic premise underlying this field of law is that by granting a kind of monopoly for a time to people who create intellectual property, creative endeavors are encouraged. There are detractors who claim that intellectual property law does not really work the way it was originally intended. There may be some truth to this, but intellectual property law remains an important component in the body of law in countries the world over.

Ownership of intellectual property can be compared to ownership of other forms of property. The owner of a home, for example, may exclude others from using the home, or from even trespassing on the property. A homeowner can sell or lease a home to someone else, or even leave it to someone in a will. Likewise, an intellectual property owner can sell, lease or will a copyright, trademark or patent.

TRADEMARK, COPYRIGHT OR PATENT?

Do trademarks, copyright and patents protect the same things? No. These are three different animals in IP jungle because they protect different types of intellectual property.

A copyright protects an original literary or artistic work. It protects what the US Copyright Office calls “works of authorship.” A trademark typically protects brand names and logos on products or services. A patent protects an invention.

To illustrate the differences, here is an example found in one of the government’s fact sheets: If you invent a new type of vacuum cleaner, a patent can protect the invention itself. Registering a trademark protects the brand name of the vacuum. A copyright would protect a TV commercial advertising the vacuum or a printed owner’s manual that comes with the purchase.

Of course, these examples are very simple. Intellectual property law is actually very complex and is its own specialty in the practice of law. Attorneys who specialize in it have degrees in both law and engineering.

I took some classes in intellectual property law at a local community college in order to learn some basic concepts and clear up some of my own misconceptions. The classes were fascinating and well worth the money. I learned enough to know that some of the information passed around in the sign industry is either inaccurate or outdated. And I learned enough to know that I should never attempt to give legal advice—ever. Still, the basic concepts underlying copyright and trademark in the US are not super complicated, even if their practical application can be.

I’ve learned, for example, that copyright is actually a bundle of five rights, not all of which apply to the sign and graphics industry. I’ve learned that protection for a logo or brand derives mainly from trademark law, not so much from copyright law. These two protections are sometimes confused by sign makers. It doesn’t help the confusion that sometimes copyright and trademark protections overlap.

Some common beliefs I have learned that are untrue: That everything found on the internet is in the public domain and free to use. The truth is almost the opposite. It should be assumed that everything found on the internet is copyright protected unless specifically stated otherwise. Another misconception is the so-called “poor man’s copyright.” Supposedly, you can mail a copy of your artwork to yourself and leave it unopened on arrival as proof that you are the original artist. This procedure actually proves nothing, except that you mailed an envelope on a certain day. The “poor man’s copyright” has no standing in court.

Further questions: Can you get trademark protection for a color? Which lasts longer, copyright or trademark? Does a domain name qualify as a trademark? I plan future posts to share information on these and other questions.

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