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What is Intellectual Property ...
and What Should YOU Be Protecting?


Any creation of your mind is your intellectual property. This could include art, literature, music, images, symbols, designs, really any invention you can think of.

intellectual property

Music, art, books, photos, poems, and other creative works are generally protected under copyright the moment they're created.

If you're particularly creative and have a lot of intellectual property floating around, it's to your advantage to protect it, and your rights to it.

The Two Categories of Intellectual Property

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), your intellectual property may be one of two things:

  1. Industrial property: This includes inventions (patents), trademarks, industrial designs, and geographic indications of source

  2. Copyright: This includes literary and artistic works such as novels, poems and plays, films, musical works, artistic works such as drawings, paintings, photographs and sculptures, and architectural designs.

A copyright, sometimes also referred to as "author's rights," means that only the author of the work may make copies of it, or give authorization to do so. Copyright protects only "the form of expression of idea, not the ideas themselves," WIPO points out.

In most countries, creative works are copyrighted the moment they come into existence. There's no need, therefore, to publicly register a copyright for your original painting, simply stating it's copyrighted is sufficient. As the right's owner, you have the right to receive financial compensation from anyone who uses your work. You may also either prohibit or authorize, according to WIPO:

  • Your work's reproduction

  • The distribution of copies

  • Its public performance

  • Its broadcasting to the public

  • Its translation to other languages

  • Its adaptation (such as a novel into a screenplay)

Copyright continues through your lifetime, but generally expires some time after the author's death so that your successors can take over.

What About Patents and Trademarks?

These apply to industrial property. Patents are only granted to inventions, which is a "product or a process that provides, in general, a new way of doing something, or offers a new technical solution to a problem," says WIPO.

The patent protects the invention from being commercially made, used, distributed or sold without the patent owner's consent.

Unlike copyrights, patents must be granted by a national or regional patent office, after you have filed a patent application and been approved. In order to receive protection, an invention must:

  • Be of practical use

  • Show an element of novelty

  • Show an inventive step that could not be deduced by a person with average knowledge of the technical field

  • Have a subject matter that is "patentable" under law (natural substances, plant and animal varieties, and methods of medical treatment are examples of things that usually cannot be patented)

Patents are granted for limited periods and generally expire after 20 years.

intellectual property

If you've come up with a new invention, getting it patented will secure your rights to it.

Trademarks, meanwhile, are used to identify goods or services. They may be a combination of words and numbers, symbols, drawings, musical sounds, and even three-dimensional designs, such as the shape or packaging of a product.

Receiving a trademark gives you the exclusive right to use the trademark or authorize someone else to use it in return for payment. To register for a trademark, you must submit an application for registration of a trademark to the appropriate national or regional trademark office.

Trademarks remain effective for varying amounts of time, but generally can be renewed indefinitely by paying the appropriate fees.

Industrial Design and Trade Secrets

You can also protect the aesthetic design of an industrial product by registering it under industrial design law. Any design that is "new" or "original" can be protected. All you need to do is register it, and the design will generally be protected for five years, with renewal possible for up to 15 years.

Trade secrets, meanwhile, are protected without any kind of registration or procedure, and may be protected indefinitely. However, it can be difficult to qualify something as a trade secret. According to WIPO, a trade secret must meet the following qualifications:

  • The information must be secret (i.e. it is not generally known among, or readily accessible to, circles that normally deal with the kind of information in question).

  • It must have commercial value because it is a secret.

  • It must have been subject to reasonable steps by the rightful holder of the information to keep it secret (e.g., through confidentiality agreements).

Should You Protect Your Intellectual Property?

In most cases, there's very little risk and a lot of benefit to gain from protecting your intellectual property. Often, your creative works will be protected under copyright immediately without your having to do anything, but if you have come up with an invention you may want to look into getting it patented ... before somebody else does.

Recommended Reading

The Seven Challenges of a Family-Run Business

Do You Have What it Takes to Start a Successful Home-Based Business?


World Intellectual Property Organization

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