Intellectual property (IP) means creations of the human mind, such as artistic work and inventions. However, this term refers not just to the creations of individuals but also to intangible assets owned by commercial entities, for example, industrial designs, symbols, logos, and names.
Such works of authorship are subject to various intellectual property rights (IPR), which allow their creators and owners to benefit from their original work and protect it from theft and other violations. These rights are protected by national and international intellectual property laws, and while intellectual property protection may slightly differ from country to country, the general assumptions are the same everywhere.
Classification of intellectual property and IPR
There are different ways that intellectual property and intellectual property rights are classified. Some sources subdivide IPR into trade secrets, patents, copyrights, and trademarks. However, this subdivision omits some important types of IP.
One of the most comprehensive and widely accepted classifications is the one proposed by the TRIP (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement, which is an international treaty administered by the World Trade Organization (WTO). Below, we explain the 7 types of IPs as defined by this agreement: copyrights, trademarks, patents, trade secrets, geographical indications, industrial design rights, and integrated circuit layout design.
Copyrights are designed to protect original work, primarily of artistic and literary nature, for example, books, music, and movies. However, nowadays, they also cover non-artistic creative work such as software. They give the creator exclusive rights to control the use and distribution of their work for a certain period of time.
Thanks to copyright laws, the owner may control how their work is used, reproduced, distributed, sold, and this even applies to derivative work. Note that in most countries, there is no need to register legal rights to a piece of work to come under copyright protection. It’s enough that the work is original and has a tangible form (for example, written or recorded). However, registering the work in a copyright office such as the U.S. Copyright Office can provide extra benefits.
Trademarks are designed to protect words, phrases, and symbols used to identify and distinguish commercial products or services. Note that trademarks may apply to names and to the visual elements associated with these names. For example, a trademark may include a company or product logo along with its name.
Note that trademarks are not recognized automatically, like copyrights. They have to be registered with national or international trademark offices. In the United States, this would be the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and in the European Union, the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO).
Patents are means of legal protection for inventors, applying to creations or discoveries. A patent gives its inventor the exclusive right to prevent others from making, using, selling, or counterfeiting the patented invention for a certain period of time in exchange for publicly disclosing the details of the invention.
There are three primary types of patents:
- Utility patents cover new and useful inventions or discoveries. For example, machines, devices, or chemical compounds. This is the most commonly recognized type of patent.
- Design patents cover specific visual aspects of an item that is already known. For example, design patents may apply to a specific shape of a car or furniture.
- Plant patents cover new varieties of plants. They prevent plant keepers from reproducing and distributing a specific variety of a plant, which was created by the inventor through cross-breeding and careful selection.
In most countries, to obtain patent protection, an inventor must file a patent application with the appropriate government agency. For example, in the United States, that would be the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
The term trade secrets apply to business-related confidential information that is not known to the public domain and provides a business with a competitive advantage. Trade secrets can include methods, designs, processes, formulas, recipes, designs, and business plans. Examples of trade secrets could be an algorithm that a search engine uses to rank results or a formula for a soft drink.
There are many ways that companies use to protect their trade secrets, for example, non-disclosure agreements with employees or contractors. Solutions such as data loss prevention (DLP) are especially useful in protecting trade secrets and preventing them from being exposed to unauthorized parties.
Geographical indications (GIs) are signs used to identify goods (usually food and drink) that originate from a particular place, as well as specific characteristics that are due to that place of origin. GIs are similar to trademarks in that they are used to identify the source of a product.
Common examples of GIs include the terms “Scotch whisky,” which applies to an alcoholic drink that must be produced in Scotland using specific techniques, and “Champagne,” which applies to sparkling wine that must be produced in the Champagne region of France.
Industrial design rights
Industrial design rights are a type of intellectual property rights that protect the appearance of a product, including its shape, configuration, or ornamentation. Industrial design rights are very similar to design patents discussed earlier, but there are some major differences between the two types of protection.
- Design patents are granted by national or regional patent offices, such as the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) or the European Patent Office (EPO). On the other hand, industrial design rights are granted by national or regional intellectual property offices, such as the United States Copyright Office or the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO).
- Design patents cover new, original, and ornamental designs for an item. Industrial design rights cover the appearance of a product as a whole, including its shape, configuration, and ornamentation.
Both design patents and industrial design rights give the owner of the protected design the exclusive right to prevent others from making, selling, or importing products that incorporate the protected design.
Integrated circuit layout design rights
Integrated circuit layout design rights, also known as semiconductor chip layout design rights, are a type of intellectual property rights that protect the layout of the circuits on an integrated circuit, for example, a microchip. Note that the layout design determines how the microchip functions and performs, and it can be a significant factor in the overall performance and reliability of the product.
Integrated circuit layout design rights are necessary because other types of IPRs, such as patents and copyrights, are not sufficient to protect the layout design of a microchip. Patents may not be available for layout designs because they do not meet the requirements for patentability, such as novelty and non-obviousness. Copyrights may not be available for layout designs because they are not considered to be artistic works.
In the US, integrated circuit layout design rights can be registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). In the European Union, integrated circuit layout design rights can be registered with the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO). To apply for registration, the designer must file an application along with a detailed description of the layout design and any supporting materials.
Effective IP protection in the digital world
While intellectual property is widely covered by laws and regulations and IP infringement can lead to severe financial consequences for the offender and provide reimbursement for the IP owner, it is much more effective to protect your intellectual property from ever becoming involved in such cases. This is because, in many countries, such legal processes involve a major investment of time and money and take a very long time, which could lead to bankruptcy, especially for small businesses. It may be that by the time your case is concluded, the business has already suffered losses so big that it can no longer continue operating.
The fact that we now live in a digital world makes such protection even more difficult for many reasons. Copying digital work is very simple, which affects copyrights. It is much easier to steal insufficiently protected digital assets than physical ones, which affects IPRs such as trade secrets. For that reason, it is more important than ever to use the right type of digital solutions to help protect intellectual property.
The types of solutions specially designed for that purpose are data loss prevention (DLP) tools such as the Endpoint Protector. A professional DLP solution will help you identify the intellectual property on your employees’ computers as well as prevent your employees from intentionally or unintentionally disclosing your IP to unauthorized parties or via insecure/unauthorized channels.
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