It's not easy to think about ideas as property, but for some businesses it's vital. Most of us have had an idea for a new product or service only to dismiss, postpone, or neglect it. Sometimes we later find that others had the same idea, but took it to market before we did. By that time, it is too late for us to take advantage of the idea.
Ideas are relatively easy to come by, but inventions are more difficult. It takes knowledge, time, money, and effort to refine an idea into a workable invention, even on paper. Turning an invention into an innovation a new product accepted by the marketplace takes a lot of effort and a little luck. There are substantial barriers in the path of those who pursue innovation. Overcoming them requires careful planning and plenty of input from others.
Hundreds of thousands of inventors and innovators file each year for protection under U.S. patent, trademark and copyright laws. However, it can be hard to decide which of the three vehicles is most appropriate for the protection of a particular invention. Although a single product or service may require a patent, a trademark, and a copyright, each category protects a distinct aspect of a creative work or expression. Patents, copyrights and trademarks, as well as know-how or trade secrets, are often collectively referred to as intellectual property. Many firms have such property without even being aware of it or of the need to take measures to protect it.
Many people's notions of intellectual property are unrealistic. Some believe, for example, that simply having a patent on a product will enable one to succeed in the marketplace. Consequently, they may spend thousands of dollars to obtain the exclusive rights to market something that no one wants or can afford to buy. Others may decide that intellectual property protection is not worth the trouble.
People who may not be interested in protecting their own rights must still take precautions to avoid infringing on the rights of others. This calls for more than the avoidance of copying. Some copying is unavoidable; but one can easily infringe on the rights of others without deliberately imitating specific features of goods or services.
A trade secret is any piece of information used by a business that isn't known to the general public, including formulas, business plans, designs and procedures. State and federal laws protect trade secrets when other areas of intellectual property law don't offer adequate protection. An example is the formula for Coca-Cola, which remains a secret despite being over 100 years old. This formula cannot be patented because it is considered a recipe, but it can be protected under trade secret laws. Trade secret law does not provide absolute protection. While the law prohibits competitors from stealing business secrets, they may be figured out by using reverse engineering. Secrets discovered via reverse engineering and then made public lose their protection.
A copyright is a form of legal protection for "original works of authorship." Screenplays, music, employee handbooks and commercial brochures are examples of work that is eligible for copyright protection, giving owners the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, publicly perform and display their work. Legal protection is extended as soon as the work is created. Registration provides the owner with establishing public awareness of its use.
Understanding Copyright Law
Need an answer that can't be found on the U.S. Copyright Office Web site? Copyright information in plain English can be found at Nolo.com. Visit the U.S. Copyright Office for answers to frequently asked questions about copyright law and usage.
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Protecting Your Ideas part 1