Intellectual property is the intangible but valuable component of a business, a work of art, or even an idea. Intellectual property comes in three different forms: (1) Trademark (e.g., a consumer brand), (2) copyright (e.g., a work of art or expression), and (3) patent (e.g., an idea or a process).
A trademark is an intellectual property which adds value to a product or business by pointing the consumer to its source. For example, the iPod brand name is not something you can touch or feel, but most consumers would be willing to spend more money on a media player with that name on it than on a nameless brand because iPod has proven itself as a source of quality media products.
A copyright is an intellectual property which is basically defined as an artist’s exclusive right to make copies of his work of expression. This means that no one other than the artist has the right to make or sell copies of the work without the artist’s approval. A copyright’s value lies in the artist’s ability to sell or license his approval so that others could make copies of his work.
A patent is an intellectual property which gives its owner the exclusive right to develop a product or even run a business process based on his or her unique idea. Businesses are always looking for the most efficient processes to make the most efficient and effective products. A patent allows its owner to protect his idea, for a number of years, either for his own exclusive use or so that he could license it or sell it to another business.
The United States is the world’s largest exporter of intellectual property. In other words, we do not export manufactured products anywhere near as much as we export and sell names, expressions and ideas. If you own a business in the United States, then chances are that the most valuable component of your businesses is the name on your product or the idea behind it. It is a basic principle of economics that if a market for a product exists then you will soon find competitors in that market. Your intellectual property is what will allow you to set yourself apart from the others.
Whether you are an artist, a small software developer, or a local restaurant, intellectual property is important to your business because it is your only way of competing with the “big boys.” The large corporations in your field have the money and resources to copy everything you do but on a grander scale. Securing your exclusive right to use your brand, your expression, or your idea and to prevent others from copying them will allow you to balance the playing field so that you could fairly pit your intelligence against your competitors’ vast resources and thrive.
Your right to your intellectual property is a Constitutional right. Article I section 8 of the US Constitution grants Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Congress established the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the United States Copyright Office to allow artists and inventors to register and protect their work. Visit www.uspto.gov or www.copyright.gov for additional information.
Whether or not a lawyer is ever needed (for anything) depends on the particular situation. It is fairly simple to register your copyright or trademark at one of the above websites. Patents require a slightly more complicated (and expensive) process because it is more difficult for USPTO agents to confirm that your complicated invention is unique among the thousands of existing ideas already registered. Nevertheless, even patents can be registered without the help of a lawyer if you have the time and the patience to learn the process.
Ultimately, as an artist, inventor or business owner, you will have to confront the following question: Is the time I spend researching what I need to learn to protect my idea worth the time I could spend marketing my idea or even developing new ones? Finally, situations can arise where only an experienced attorney would have the knowledge to advocate in your best interests; an attorney is well-equipped to identify such situations.
In short: It never hurts to get more information via a free consultation.
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