Published

September 15, 2021

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Key Takeaways

  • Intellectual property law protects the unique work of companies, inventors, researchers, engineers, artists, entrepreneurs, and more.
  • The three major types of intellectual property rights in the U.S. are trademarks, patents, and copyrights. 
  • Unauthorized use of intellectual property is enforceable by federal law, and it can have serious consequences for businesses.

Intellectual property (IP) is a key driver of economic growth and innovation in business. In an increasingly competitive and crowded market, intellectual property protections offer incentives to keep pushing for new advances. 

Just as companies, inventors, researchers, engineers, artists, and entrepreneurs depend on intellectual property law to protect their work, consumers trust IP to provide them with safe and authentic products. Not limited to creative fields, nearly every U.S industry produces or uses some form of intellectual property. 

Here’s what businesses need to know to avoid IP infringement and protect their intangible assets. 

What is intellectual property?

As the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) defines it, intellectual property refers to “creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.” The intangible assets that differentiate your business may encompass everything from your company’s brand name, logo, slogan, innovative technology, or even proprietary designs, recipes, and processes. 

How to protect intellectual property 

The three major types of intellectual property rights in the U.S. encompass trademarks, patents, and copyrights. 

Trademarks

Trademarks protect the symbols, words and slogans that identify goods and services, such as your company name, tagline, or logo. Trademarks are designed to avoid confusion, prevent imitation, and allow brands to distinguish themselves. 

In the United States, you obtain commercial rights to a trademark simply by being the first to use it. However, registering a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) offers added benefits and protections. 

Once registered, a business may use the ® symbol immediately following the mark. For example, Nike’s iconic tagline “Just Do It®” is a registered trademark of the brand. Therefore, others can’t use it without permission or license. The (TM) symbol used directly following a mark denotes an unregistered trademark.

Patents

Patents protect processes, methods, and inventions that are deemed novel, non-obvious, and useful. Patents give your business an advantage by granting exclusive rights to make, sell, and distribute the invention for a period of 20 years. Patent applications must be filed with the USPTO. 

In a recent example of intellectual property at work, strong patenting norms enabled the development and deployment of three FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines at record-breaking speed.

Copyrights 

Copyrights apply to tangible and intangible creative works such as art, musical compositions, motion pictures, architecture, and other artistic expressions. Copyright exists from the moment you create the work, without requiring any official filing. However, federal registration of a copyrighted work deters others from duplicating it and also strengthens a business’ case in the event of an infringement.

Trade secrets 

Additionally, while trade secrets are not registered with any government office, businesses can protect their commercially valuable confidential information, either by keeping it known only to a limited group of persons or through the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Famous trade secrets include the Kentucky Fried Chicken and Coca-Cola recipes.

Each method has unique benefits, limitations and scope. This means the right type of intellectual property protection for an organization will depend on a variety of factors including the type(s) of work and core business objectives. In many cases, companies will recruit the help of an IP attorney to advise on protecting their interests.

What is intellectual property infringement?

IP infringement occurs any time a protected work is copied or otherwise used without the owner’s permission. Unauthorized use of intellectual property is enforceable by federal law, and it can have serious consequences for businesses, including financial penalties, damage to the company’s reputation, and in extreme cases, criminal charges.

How to avoid intellectual property infringement 

Businesses of all sizes can take measures to prevent innovations from being copied or stolen. A successful IP management strategy also includes safeguarding your organization from committing IP fraud, whether knowingly or unintentionally. Here are some tips for protecting your organization from intellectual property infringement. 

  • Conduct an IP audit:Conducting a thorough IP audit allows companies to identify potential IP assets, as well as any related threats, whether from their own side or by others. 
  • Take advantage of established IP protections: Register your patents, copyrights and trademarks to establish public ownership of your creative assets and innovations. 
  • Keep an eye on your competitors: Consistently monitoring industry competitors helps companies catch intellectual property theft early. 
  • Use media wisely: To avoid violating IP rights, businesses should create original graphics, content, and music for advertisements or use only royalty-free media. Alternatively, be sure to obtain a license as well as explicit, written consent from the owner.
  • Educate employees: Create organization-wide awareness around the importance of respecting intellectual property. Educate your employees on best practices and available resources.
  • Consult with an IP attorney: If you believe your organization’s intellectual property has been compromised, or you’ve been accused of IP theft, consult with an IP attorney immediately. 

Additionally, special considerations should be taken for businesses entering foreign markets, or in the event of a merger or acquisition, since: 

  • IP rights are only valid for the country in which they were granted
  • IP rights do not transfer automatically when a company gets acquired
  • IP should factor into the selling price of a company

Intellectual property protections are not only vital to creating jobs and advancing economic growth in the United States, but also for saving lives and solving problems that impact communities across the globe. By understanding, using and respecting the different types of intellectual property, your business plays a vital role in supporting global innovation and economic growth.