As an artist, inventor, scientist, or creator, an individual should ensure that others do not wrongfully profit from their original ideas. The legal system provides certain privileges and protections for owners and inventors of property through intellectual property laws.

The purpose of intellectual property laws is to encourage new ideas, technologies, artistic creativity, and inventions for economic growth with the confidence that their creative work and ideas will be protected. Intellectual property laws protect entities that do not have a physical form.

This may include names and logos which are attached to products, inventions, and original works of authorship. Because no individual can physically possess these things, the laws which apply to personal property cannot and do not apply to intellectual property.

Due to this issue, intellectual property laws generally protect the exclusive rights to use or reproduce the intellectual property rather than its possession. Intellectual property laws may also, in some situations, protect secrecy.

Typically, the individual who first created or invented something is the owner of the intellectual property. However, some employers provide in their employment contracts that the employer owns what the employees create on the job.

In addition, the rights to intellectual property may be given away temporarily using a licensing agreement.

What Is Intellectual Property?

The term intellectual property, or IP, refers to broad property rights that are vested in the intangible. The property rights associated with real property, such as land, and personal property, or everything else, are fairly straightforward.

Owners of these types of property have the right to possess it, to prevent other individuals from possessing it, and to preserve its integrity. This forms the basis of laws against:

  • Theft;
  • Trespass; and
  • Vandalism.

Intellectual property law embraces copyright laws, patent laws and trademark laws. Working with an intellectual property attorney can help an individual protect their work and provide them peace of mind that their work will not be copied or used by another without providing them with compensation.

For more information on intellectual property, see the following LegalMatch articles:

Each state may also have its own specific intellectual property laws and codes. For instance, Montana intellectual property law is specifically addressed in the Montana Code Annotated.

What is a Copyright?

If an individual is a visual artist, musician, or writer, copyright laws protect their creative works. Copyright law prevents others from using or stealing an individual’s work for profit of their own.

For more information on copyrights, see the following LegalMatch articles:

What Are Patents?

If an individual has a great idea or invention that is unique and new, it is important to protect their idea or invention with a patent issued by the U.S Patent and Trademark Office. Learn the basics on what can be patented, patent applications, patent process, and how to do a patent search from the following LegalMatch articles:

  • What Is a Patent?;
  • Types of Inventions That Can Be Patented;
  • Getting a Patent;
  • Patent Duration;
  • Patent Licensing; and
  • Patent Infringement.

What Are Trade Secrets?

If an individual owns a business and their business has confidential information that they do not want to be shared or leaked out to the public or other competitors, there are many nondisclosure agreements and non-compete agreements that can protect an individual’s business secrets.

For more information on trade secrets, see the following LegalMatch articles:

  • Trade Secrets;
  • The Difficulties Surrounding Trade Secret Lawsuits;
  • Termination of a Trade Secret’s Secret; and
  • Remedies for Trade Secret Misappropriation.

What Are Trademarks?

If an individual has a business brand, name or logo and wants to use it as their company’s trademark, it is important to protect the business’ brand from copycats. Registering a company or business name or logo makes it easier to prevent copycats from stealing the image and violating the laws of unfair competition.

For more information on trademarks, see the following LegalMatch articles:

  • What Is a Trademark?;
  • Trademark Counterfeiting;
  • Bars to Registering a Trademark;
  • Common Law Trademark Rights; and
  • Loss of Trademark Rights (Trademark Infringement or Dilution).

Who Should Be Concerned About Intellectual Property Issues?

Almost everyone should be concerned about intellectual property issues. There are, however, certain individuals who should be particularly concerned, including:

  • Creative employees, or employees whose job descriptions require them to make new creative works, such as writers, graphic designers, etc: These individuals should be aware of the fact that, in general, their employer owns the copyright on any works they produce in the scope of their employment. This rule does not apply to independent contractors. However, it is always advisable for an independent contractor and those hiring them to draft an agreement about who will own the IP rights in the work the contractor was hired to create in order to avoid disputes in the future;
  • Employees in high-tech industries: Numerous lawsuits have started when an engineer moves from one company to another and ends up taking trade secrets with them; and
  • Employers: As previously noted, there may be some confusion regarding who owns a creative work when it is produced in the course of employment. Employers who wish to retain the intellectual property rights to works which are created by their employees in their scope of employment should be aware of these issues.

What Are the Penalties for Infringement?

When intellectual property has been infringed, the owner may seek damages against the infringer who has violated that intellectual property. The damages may include any:

  • Lost profits;
  • Punitive damages; and
  • Statutory damages.

In addition, some types of infringement may also incur criminal fines or require the confiscation of any and all infringing goods. An infringement lawsuit may be filed in connection with intellectual property which is protected under state or federal laws.

This may include materials that are protected under:

  • Copyright;
  • Trademark;
  • Patent; or
  • Other laws.

These types of laws provide exclusive rights to:

  • Own;
  • Sell;
  • Use; or
  • distribute various:
    • items;
    • logos;
    • inventions;
    • works of art;
    • music; and
    • certain words or phrases.

What Is Intellectual Property Theft?

As discussed above, intellectual property is any material or idea that is protected by law governing:

  • Copyrights;
  • Trademarks;
  • Patents; or
  • Trade secret laws.

This type of property may include:

  • Client lists;
  • Poems;
  • Mechanical inventions; and
  • Logos.

Intellectual property theft occurs when an individual knowinging does any of the following to property which is protected under intellectual property laws:

  • Takes;
  • Uses;
  • Misappropriates; or
  • Otherwise steals.

Because there are numerous different types of intellectual property, there are also many variations of intellectual property theft. An example of intellectual property theft occurs when an individual knowingly copies the logo of a company and uses it on their own items without the other company’s consent.

Another example would be if an employee takes a secret food recipe from a company and uses it to create their own food product.

Should I Seek Legal Help?

You should contact an intellectual property lawyer if you need to protect your intellectual property rights or if you are facing an infringement issue. A lawyer will help you navigate intellectual property laws and will represent your best interests with any legal disputes.