“Intellectual property” covers a wide array of different protections for intangible property. These different protections are based upon which type of intangible intellectual property you seek to protect. Intellectual property can be divided into three main areas: patents, copyrights, and trademarks. On the margins, some people also group trade secrets and the rights of privacy/publicity into intellectual property, but copyright, trademark, and patent law have all developed through their own laws, statutes, and administrative bodies over time, and so that is one of the reasons they are considered the main three conceptual areas of protection. You first need to decide whether the thing you wish to copyright can be copyrighted, or if it would be better protected as a patent or a trademark. These areas are not mutually exclusive, and you may be protecting a product with a design patent, a copyright, a trade dress, and a trademark all at the same time. That is only one example.
While there are certainly many nuances to each area of intellectual property, a very basic understanding of the three main areas may be considered like this: copyrights generally protect works of art, trademarks protect brands and brand names, and patents protect inventions and other scientific discoveries. To illustrate how each of these areas are different and yet work together, let us consider an example.
Pfizer is a pharmaceutical company. The name “Pfizer” is trademarked as its brand, so that you, as a consumer, can easily associate a “Pfizer” product with its name, with its reputation as a company, and with its brand. If knockoff companies could promote and sell “Pfizer” products legally, then Pfizer’s reputation and goodwill would be negatively affected, because some of these products would either not be as effective or would even be bad or harmful to consumers as knockoffs. Consumers would not know the difference and would blame Pfizer for products it doesn’t even sell. Without control over the manufacturing and distribution of products bearing its name and brand, Pfizer would be powerless to control its own image as a commercial company. Instead, Pfizer can protect the integrity of its brand by being the only company able to use its name to market its products. Otherwise, its brand gets diluted and tarnished as consumers fail to recognize the distinction between real Pfizer products and the bad knockoff ones.
Additionally, Pfizer makes vaccines and medicine. The product itself would be protected with a patent (or a series of patents). Pfizer puts in extensive time, energy, manpower, money, and resources into developing a new vaccine or other medicine, and it is rewarded for its efforts by the United States federal government when it is granted a patent, which gives Pfizer the exclusive monopoly to recreate and manufacture its product without competition. This prevents another company from waiting on the sidelines until Pfizer has perfected its product, and then copying the product verbatim or almost verbatim without putting in the work that Pfizer did. These patents are sometimes worth millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars.
Third, if Pfizer created a commercial or other promotional material for its new product like posters or other videos, those would be considered works of art, which could be registered as copyrights by Pfizer. A copyright is a form of protection granted by the United States federal government which applies to an original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. 17 USC 102(a). For something to be protected by copyright, it must be: (a) original, (b) a work by an author, and (c) fixed in a tangible medium of expression. The Copyright Act cites several examples of potentially copyrightable works, including choreography, sculptures, photographs, pictures, music, and literary works. That list is by no means exhaustive.
It is sometimes best to think of these protections as a portfolio that you own, which you can layer, overlap, and strengthen with additional protections as you deem reasonable or necessary. Choosing the types of IP best suited for your product/brand/idea is something you and an experienced intellectual property attorney can discuss.
If you have any legal questions about securing protections for your intellectual property or are considering taking legal action in regards to your intellectual property, call Boatman Ricci at 239-330-1494.
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