Intellectual Property and Business: When Knowing Isn’t Enough

In a world that makes accessing information seem effortless, protecting intellectual property can be seem like a full time job.

While it might seem a like fairly modern concept, the term intellectual property has been recorded as early as 1845, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. There it is defined as “property (as an idea, invention, or process) that derives from the work of the mind or intellect” but also “an application, right, or registration relating to this.” Some scholars say the concept extends much further back in history, but today it has been cast into the spotlight as the ease and speed of transmission of data on a global scale make protecting proprietary information more important than ever.

In modern practice, intellectual property is something of an umbrella term that covers inventions, literary and artistic works, symbols, names, images, and designs used for business purposes. More broadly, this can be any proprietary intangible asset that has value.

Intellectual property is broadly divided into two main areas: 1) industrial property, which includes inventions, trademarks, and designs; and 2) copyright, which includes literary and artistic works such as writing, photographs, and architectural designs. Legally defined categories of intellectual property in the United States include patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets.

Intellectual property rights in the form of patents typically grant the originator an exclusive right to the use of the creation for a certain period of time.

Copyrights do not protect ideas, but they do protect how they are expressed.

Trademarks are used to protect names and identifying marks of products and/or businesses. Trademarks are aimed distinguishing competitors from each other in an easily recognizable way.

Trade secrets refer to formulas, patterns, devices or bodies of data that give the user a competitive advantage.

While intellectual property is afforded these protections under U.S. federal and/or state laws, it is not always afforded the same level of protection internationally. This can mean the loss of proprietary information by means of theft and/or unauthorized duplication that can be detrimental to any organization, whether or not it does business internationally. The issue of safeguarding intellectual property across borders remains hotly debated and is often associated with losses of competitive advantage and incentives to innovate that are often seen as the underlying basis for intellectual property rights.

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