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Definition of Intellectual Property: It May Not Be What You Think

written by: Rebecca Scudder•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 7/22/2011

Do you know the real meaning of intellectual property? It doesn't mean your bookshelf, or even all the books you've read. It is rights to things you create or invent yourself; trademarks and trade secrets, symbols, marks, images and the designs used in business. It also covers less obvious things

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    What is Intellectual Property?

    Merriam Webster says "intellectual property: property (as an idea, invention, or process) that derives from the work of the mind or intellect: an application, right, or registration relating to this."

    The intellectual property rights definition gives the creator or holder exclusive rights to the intellectual property for varying lengths of time, depending upon the type of intellectual property.

    In the United States, Intellectual Property rights are overseen by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and the United States Copyright Office.

    Worldwide, the officiating body is the World Intellectual Property Organization, for all those countries participating.

    Intellectual property is property of the mind, according to WIPO, World Intellectual Property Organization and they say:

    Intellectual property is divided into two categories: Industrial property, which includes inventions (patents), trademarks, industrial designs, and geographic indications of source; and Copyright, which includes literary and artistic works such as novels, poems and plays, films, musical works, artistic works such as drawings, paintings, photographs and sculptures, and architectural designs. Rights related to copyright include those of performing artists in their performances, producers of phonograms in their recordings, and those of broadcasters in their radio and television programs.

    Again quoting WIPO, "intellectual property shall include rights relating to:

    • literary, artistic and scientific works,
    • performances of performing artists, phonograms and broadcasts,
    • inventions in all fields of human endeavor,
    • scientific discoveries,
    • industrial designs,
    • trademarks, service marks and commercial names and designations,
    • protection against unfair competition"
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    WIPO logo 

    Most people have a general understanding of what is meant by copyright, patents and trademark, but the other areas covered by WIPO are not as well known. Most of this information can be found in greater detail in the WIPO Intellectual Property Handbook: Policy, Law and Use, Chapter two.

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    patents on computer 

    Patents cover inventions. These can be utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. The process of filing for a patent can be time consuming, and somewhat costly.

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    Copyright protects intellectual property of a creative or artistic nature. Copyright often lasts 50 to 70 years after the creator's death. In some countries, your copyright must be registered to become effective. In the United States, copyright is established as soon as a work is created; in the case of software, or a digital drawing, even as soon as it is saved to the hard drive. However, registering your copyright gives you additional rights. In this article, you can read about the steps to get a copyright registered.

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    Trademarks are symbols, words or phrases that identify a product or company. It must be registered like a patent to protect it from use by others. Unlike most forms of intellectual property, trademarks don't expire as long as the requirements for filing for its continual use are met. In the US trademarks are applied for at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. TM is generally used next to a trademark to indicate that it is a registered trademark.

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    Trademarks- Trade names

    One area which falls under trademarks is trade names. A company can own several trademarks in their business. However, they usually have one Trade Name, to distinguish themselves from their competitors. The name is independent of whatever the products are which the company sells under a particular trademark. Trade Names can be long, and also need to indicate informGE Logo with trademark ation about the type of enterprise. They need to include incorporated, or Company, or Ltd. for a limited company.

    GE logo 

    An example is the General Electric Company. General Electric Company is the registered trade name, with the registered trademarks General Electric, GE, and their monogram. They also own such trademarks as imagination at work and ecomagination, among others.

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    Other areas under the umbrella concept of trademarks are franchises, such as Burger King, and famous character names, such as Tarzan, Mickey Mouse, and Charlie Chaplin. These can come from literature, pictorial matter or actual people, and are all used as recognizable figures in merchandising. However, there are protections for live people against unauthorized use of their names, images or other characteristics, which are above the rights to intellectual property. This is generally covered under such rights as those to privacy and protection against libel or defamation.

    Coke bottle logo 

    Trade secrets often consist of information which could be patentable, such as the formula for Coca Cola™. However, patents expire, whereas a trade secret, if it is not discovered, can continue to be used exclusively by a company for an indeterminate length of time, so some companies make the decision that it is better for the company not to patent the information. Protection for trade secrets generally falls under the intellectual property rights for Protection Against Unfair Competition. Usually, if a trade secret is independently discovered, its intellectual property rights are lost.

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    On the next page we look at integrated circuit protection, geographical indications, protection against unfair competition and the importance of protecting intellectual property.

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    How do we define Intellectual Property for everyday use? Intellectual property is created by the mind, but the definition is more than you would assume it would cover. What are these other intellectual properties? They include integrated circuits, geographic indications and unfair competition. We look at the definitions of each of these rights, with examples to make them clear. Why do we protect intellectual property? Why does it matter if it is protected? Intellectual property is created by the mind, but some people wonder if these creations should be available to anyone. How does availability relate to the purpose of protection for intellectual property?
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    Industrial Designs and Integrated Circuits

    In the United States, industrial design protection is covered under design patents, but other countries such as the UK, France and Japan have made explicit provisions for protection of industrial design.

    The related protection of integrated circuits has been handled explicitly under the Treaty on Intellectual Property in Respect of Integrated circuit by tambako the Jaguar Integrated Circuits (IPIC Treaty) which was passed at a meeting in Washington DC. The World Trade Organization also covers integrated circuits in the TRIPS agreement. The designs for specific circuits are covered, as it is considered that they are products of the mind, and often embody large investments of time, resources and money. Reverse engineering of the principle of the design is allowed, as long as the end result is a different design, even if it does the same thing.

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    Geographical Indications

    Geographical Indications is probably the newest term covered by the intellectual property rights definition, and refers to the value of such names as Champagne, Chianti, and Darjeeling, which are actual place names, but are thought of generally in terms of the products they are associated with.

    Geographic Indications is a varied concept, and the term Geographical Indication has only recently begun to be used in international negotiations. An earlier term, still used in WIPO documents, is appellation of origin, which is a geographical location used to designate a product from that region.

    Geographical Indications is meant to embody the widest possible coverage of this sort of intellectual property. It differs from trademark because it is not associated with a single company's products, but with products of a particular nature that come from that geographic location.

    Champagne is not the trademark for a particular winery. It is the group of wines of a certain type coming from the Champagne area of champagne label by Stewart France. It is meant to keep the use of the term solely for wine from that location, and not allow it to be used in ways such as 'champagne-like' wine from California. It also includes symbols associated with a geographical region, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, or the Statue of Liberty with New York City, in the United States.

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    Protection Against Unfair Competition

    Protection Against Unfair Competition is another area of Intellectual property that is not as well known as copyright or patent. This area has been under some sorts of protection in treaties and agreements for over a century, but the reasoning for it being part of intellectual property is generally not as obvious to people as other types of intellectual property. An example of this would be protection against 'knock offs' passing themselves off as originals. It is not meant to stop normal competition in a market.

    However, an example which shows the reasoning behind this protection is in situations where companies sell products packaged exactly like those of another company, but the product is of inferior quality or actually does not work. When fake flash drives with bogus capabilities are sold to consumers through eBay or, the original company manufacturing their own quality product, such as SONY or Kingston, can be hurt economically by the poor quality of products passed off as being manufactured by the well known company.

    This concept is somewhat ambiguous. and referred to differently in various countries, as honest trade practice, or good morals or the principles of honesty and fair dealing or the morals of the marketplace.

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    Areas which are impacted by this counterfeiting include the manufacturing of consumer goods, technological devices, software piracy, Intellectual property of different types and products from pharmaceutical companies. has resources for the theft of misuse of intellectual property in the United States.. This is a program, Strategy Targeting Organized Piracy (STOP!) They can be accessed through their website or at their HOTLINE: 1-866-999-HALT (1-866-999-4258)

    Congress has created criminal laws covering violations of intellectual property, and is a good gateway to information on the problem of intellectual property theft, and recourse when theft has happened.

    Protection of intellectual property falls under main two areas: Piracy and counterfeiting. Counterfeiting is the illicit copying of products (fakes). Piracy refers to the illicit copying of material that is copyrighted.

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    Why is it important to protect Intellectual Property?

    After understanding what is meant by the intellectual property rights definition, the question remains: Why is it important to protect it? has some very pertinent figures on the damages caused by theft of intellectual property:

    According to FBI, Interpol, World Customs Organization and International Chamber of Commerce estimates, roughly 7-8% of world trade every year is in counterfeit goods. That is the equivalent of as much as $512 billion in global lost sales. Of that amount, U.S. companies lose between $200 billion and $250 billion. IP theft has a major impact at home, too. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; overall intellectual property theft costs 750,000 U.S. jobs a year.

Understand Intellectual Property and the Differences Between Copyright and Patent

Copyrights and Patents both protect Intellectual Property. Do you know the definition of intellectual property? Understand how copyright and patent differ, the purpose of a patent vs. a copyright, and see what types of intellectual property are covered by each protection.
  1. Definition of Intellectual Property: It May Not Be What You Think
  2. What Is a Patent?
  3. Exploring Copyrights and Their Purposes
  4. The Differences Between a Copyright and a Patent
  5. Sample Employee Release of Intellectual Property Rights