A wide body of federal and state laws protects creative property such as writing, music, drawings, paintings, photography, and films. Collectively, this body of law is called “intellectual property” law, which includes copyright, trademark, and patent laws, each applicable in various situations and each with its own set of technical rules. When obtaining permission to use creative works, you’re concerned primarily with copyright law. However, trademarks, trade secrets, and publicity and privacy rights sometimes come into play when permission to use certain types of works is sought.
Copyright. Original creative works such as paintings, writing, architecture, movies, software, photos, dance, and music are protected by federal copyright law. A work must meet certain minimum requirements to qualify for copyright protected. In the U.S., patents may be available to any person who “invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” Patent protection must be sought by application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Intellectual property is something unique that you physically create. An idea alone is not intellectual property. For example, an idea for a book doesn’t count, but the words you’ve written do.
You own intellectual property if you:
- created it (and it meets the requirements for copyright, a patentor a design)
- bought intellectual property rights from the creator or a previous owner
- have a brand that could be a trade mark, eg a well-known product name
You usually won’t own the intellectual property for something you created as part of your work while you were employed by someone else.
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