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What is intellectual property law?

The American legal system is designed in large part to protect the private property of individuals, businesses and other parties from theft or misuse. Property can be tangible objects like a building or car. Or it can be an idea, an image or a particular arrangement of words.

These more ephemeral “things” are known as intellectual property. And they can be very valuable to their creator or owner. Think of iconic corporate logos like the Nike “swoosh,” or mega-selling albums by Taylor Swift. Without protections provided by intellectual property law, competitors could appropriate these works and try to pass them off as their own.

Three of the most important ways ideas can receive legal protection are copyrights, trademarks and patents. We will go into more detail on each of these in future blog posts, but here is a brief summary of each.

Under federal law, a copyright is protection given to the creator of an original work, such as a work of art or a piece of software. A copyright gives the owner the exclusive right to reproduce the work, create “derivative” works, sell or distribute the work, and perform or display the work publicly.

A trademark is used to identify and promote the goods or services a business or similar entity provides. Again, the Nike “swoosh” is a trademark. Another company that put the swoosh on its sneakers would be vulnerable to a lawsuit from Nike for trademark infringement. Corporations usually register their trademarks, but it is not automatically necessary to have registered a trademark to prove that it belongs to you.

Finally, there are patents. A patent is federal-level protection of an invention. It gives the inventor the sole right to make, sell and use his or her invention -- for a limited period of time.

Used properly, intellectual property protections can help you use your ideas, work and inventions the way you want. Intellectual property law can be confusing. The best way for your business to protect itself is to consult an intellectual property attorney if you believe your rights have been violated.

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