In the age of information, intellectual property law is a red-hot topic: it’s been enforced to support entire industries, challenged as antiquated in a digital era, celebrated for allowing that same era to flourish, and maligned for holding it back. Needless to say, it’s a hugely complex issue. But since it’s also a hugely important one, taking the time to understand the basics is something everyone should do – especially innovators.
What is intellectual property law?
Intellectual property law is designed to enforce rights of ownership over ideas, or more precisely, ‘creations of the mind’. This covers artistic expression like music and literature, as well as a range of industrial design choices – including aesthetic ones. The appearance of the iPhone, for example, in addition to its component technologies, is protected by law. Even more abstractly, business-related symbols or phrases can also enjoy the same advantages – McDonald’s golden arches, for example, or Nike’s slogan ‘Just do it’.
Once the right has been established, the government is empowered to enforce the authority of the rights holder to use it exclusively. Any entity than infringes on that right can be required to cease, desist, and pay damages. No other business is entitled to advertise with the phrase ‘Just do it’, and no company can display the golden arches except McDonald’s.
Why does it exist?
The logic behind the law is this: if ideas can be freely taken, they lose their value – and if they lose their value, there’s no incentive for people to innovate. Since innovation is understood to be crucial to cultural development – growing the economy, improving standards of living, enriching social discourse – the law exists to preserve that incentive, rewarding those who innovate.
How does it work?
Patents are legal protections for inventions, which are products or processes that provide a technological solution that has not been attempted before. It grants the patent holder exclusive rights over the invention, meaning that the creators of all future technologies that incorporate it are required to share profits. In exchange, the patent holder submits a detailed record of the invention to the public record, so that innovation can flourish.
Copyrights, usually enforced for artistic works, are designed to preserve the rights of the originator of a piece over those who copy and disseminate it. The idea is to prevent the photocopier from enjoying the same advantages as the author.
Trademarks are signs that indicate the presence of a recognizable person or group. The understanding is that without protection, unauthorized duplication could mislead the consumer as to what organization was behind the product – diluting the efficacy of the business.
In all cases, intellectual property law is designed to protect businesses from fraud and keep the wheels of innovation spinning. For more information, check out the excellent resources on Legal Zoom.