Intellectual property rights in the United States, An introduction

Introduction to intellectual property rights in the United States

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Intellectual property rights are the exclusive legal rights associated with the creations of the minds and thereby, ascribed to the persons credited for such creations. In the United States, the term intellectual property refers to the collection of distinct but related legal doctrines created by federal and state laws.

What is intellectual property? What are the functions of intellectual property rights?

By definition, an intellectual property refers to the creation of the minds. These are intangible unlike physical properties. Example of intellectual properties include inventions, literary or artistic works, designs and symbols, and names and images used in commerce.

There are three main functions of intellectual property rights. The first one is to provide an incentive for creations and inventions. Intellectual property doctrines intend to promote the interest of businesspersons or entrepreneurs, inventors, and artists by encouraging innovation and originality.

Second is to promote competition, especially in a free market economy. According to this function, intellectual property is an instrument for promoting economic growth through ingenuity and innovation, and by allowing greater variety in accessible products, thereby promoting the interest of consumers as well.

The third function of intellectual property rights is to balance the interest of involved stakeholders, including the creators or capitalists, the economy, and the consumers.

Legal basis of intellectual property rights in the United States

Federal law is the primary legal basis of intellectual property rights in the U.S. To be specific, federal regulation is one of the sources of governmental authority to regulate intellectual properties. The U.S. Constitution—specifically Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 or the Copyright and Patent Clause—provides the U.S. Congress the capacity to grant patents and copyrights. In addition, the Commerce Clause—found in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3—provides the U.S. Congress the authority to regulate trademarks as well as acts of unfair competition affecting interstate commerce or business activities.

Another legal basis of intellectual property rights in the U.S. is state regulation. The Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Supremacy Clause grant state governments the authority to regulate intellectual property as long as such regulation does not stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of the U.S. Congress in enacting federal law.

Take note that federal law provides for patents and copyrights, rights in trademarks, and other indications of the origin of a product. It also prohibits three forms of unfair competition to include passing off, false advertising, and product disparagement. State law, on the other hand, provides rights in trade secrets, undeveloped ideas, and the commercial exploitation of the identity of an individual. The state law, acting in concurrence with federal law, also provides right in trademarks and other related indication of origin, while also prohibiting forms of unfair competition.

General types of intellectual property in the United States

  • Patent: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office defines a “patent” as the granting of a property right to an inventor for his invention or discovery for a certain period, thereby giving him the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, and importing similar inventions or discoveries without permission. There are two categories of patent—utility patent and design patent. Read more: Facts about patent law in the United States
  • Copyright: A copyright protects writings and artistic works against copying. Several classifications of works are specified under the copyright statutes and include, but are not limited to, literary works, dramatic works, musical works, including music and lyrics, computer programs, video recordings, and artistic expressions. Copyrights are directed to forms of expression rather than utility subject matter. Read more: Understanding copyright law in the United States
  • Trade secret: A trade secret is proprietary or business-related information that a company or individual uses and has exclusive rights to. To be considered a trade secret, the information must meet three requirements. First, it must be genuine and not obvious. Any unique method of accomplishing a task would constitute a trade secret, especially if it is backed up by copyrighted, patented, or copyrighted proprietary software or methods that give an organization a competitive advantage. Second, it must provide the owner a competitive or economic advantage and, therefore, have value to the owner. Third, must be reasonably protected from disclosure. This does not mean that it must be kept absolutely and exclusively secret, but the owner must exercise due care in its protection. Read more: Background on trade secret law in the United States

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a series about intellectual property rights in the United States. (1) An introduction to intellectual property rights in the United States; (2) Understanding copyright law in the United States; (3) Facts about patent law in the United States; (4) The basics of trademark law in the United States; (5) An overview of trade dress law in the United States; (6) Background on trade secret law in the United States