Modern technology has made it so much easier to get your materials out there. You can share ideas and pictures with the whole world and use it to make money. But just as it’s easier to share, it’s also easier to steal. That’s why it’s important to know the laws and protect yourself.
Before we talk about the laws behind intellectual property, we should probably talk about what intellectual property is. Intellectual property is anything that comes out of your head, whether it be an idea, writing, art, or a picture.
Just because someone can reproduce what you make doesn’t mean it’s legal for them to do so. Intellectual property can usually be divided into four categories: patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets.
While you’ve likely heard all these terms, here’s a quick breakdown of exactly what they mean.
* Copyright. This protects items that are produced by the imagination, but are tangible, like books and songs. To be protected, you must apply for a copyright, which requires you to fill out forms, pay a fee, and provide a copy.
A current copyright lasts 78 years after the author’s death. This is how families still make money off of their relatives after they pass away. Courts can impose severe financial penalties if a copyright is violated. Visit the U.S. Copyright Office here.
* Trademark. This protects names and logos that identify a specific brand. They keep people from getting confused between two products. While many things can be trademarked, general terms and images cannot. You can apply for local trademark protection through your state, but you can get better protection federally.
* Patent. These are used to protect inventions and processes that someone creates. The idea is that they reveal how to make the product, and the government prevents other people from making it in exchange. A patent lasts generally 20 years, but can also take a long time to get one. The application process is more extensive than the others and should include a detailed description of how to make the item. A patent also gives you the ability to sell the right to produce the item you’ve patented.
* Trade Secrets. These are things a business uses that it needs to keep secret in order to succeed. It might be a secret recipe or how a product is made. Whether or not something can be protected as a trade secret is decided in court and is based on a variety of factors, but most importantly, whether something is public knowledge or not. There isn’t a time limit to this kind of protection, but it can be voided if information is revealed to others.
Just because something fits into one category, doesn’t mean it can’t fit into another. They often overlap, which can make it more difficult to protect yourself.
Just because a law exists, doesn’t mean that there won’t be people out there who will not break them. Unfortunately, the lines can get even more blurred when your business is online. Knowing your rights is the first step and then taking appropriate measures to protect your content will lead you in the right direction.