Here a few of the most commonly asked questions about copyright and intellectual property.

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What is Intellectual Property?::

Intellectual property is any innovation, commercial or artistic, or any unique name, symbol, logo or design used commercially.

Intellectual property is protected by

  • patents on inventions;
  • trademarks on branding devices;
  • copyrights on music, videos, patterns and other forms of expression;
  • trade secrets for methods or formulas having economic value and used commercially

A patent grants of a property right for an invention to the inventor, as issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. A patent gives the inventor “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention when the patent is granted. Patents are territorial in that patent protection must be applied for in each country where protection is sought.

A trademark protects words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish goods and services from those manufactured or sold by others and indicate the source of the goods. Unlike patents these can be renewed forever as long as it is being used in commerce. Though optional, obtaining a federal trademark registration offers benefits to businesses. Trademarks are territorial; unlike the United States, most countries require registration of trademark rights.

A copyright is a form of protection provided to the authors of “original works of authorship” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished. These protect the “form of expression” rather than the subject matter of the writing. The U.S. Copyright Office handles copyright registrations. Owners of copyrighted works seeking protection in other countries should first determine the extent of protection available to works of foreign authors in that country.

Generally, a trade secret can include a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique or process that is used in one’s business, and has independent economic value that provides an advantage over competitors who are not aware of it or use it. Under most circumstances, a trade secret is lost once it is independently discovered.
What is a copyright?::

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including but not limited to literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. Available to both published and unpublished works, this protects the work of the author for the duration of the author’s life plus 70 years. Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • To produce copies of their work illegally
  • To create works derived from the original copyrighted material
  • To sell, lease, rent, lend or distribute copies of the work to the public
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
  • In addition, certain authors of works of visual art have the rights of attribution and integrity as described in section 106A of the 1976 Copyright Act. For further information, request Circular 40 [PDF], “Copyright Registration for Works of the Visual Arts.”

The copyright law protects authored works and their makers, giving them control as to how and where their works will be used.
What works are protected?::

The copyright law of the United States provide protection to “original works of authorship” including but not limited to the following:

  • literary works;
  • musical works, including any accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

The categories provided are broad allowing it to include other authored work like computer programs, architectural plans and software.

How can I secure a copyright?::

Securing a copyright requires no action.  When a work is created, or when it is fixed in a copy for the first time; copyright is automatically secured for that work. To protect his copyright, however, the author of the work has to register his copyright to the copyright office.

A work can be defined as fixed in a copy when it is placed in a material object from which it can be read or visually perceived either directly or with the use of a machine or device.  A good example of these are books, manuscripts, films or videotapes. For sound works like soundtracks, the material objects are called phonorecords.

If a work is prepared over a period of time, the part of the work that is fixed on a particular date constitutes the created work as of that date.


How long does copyright protection last?::

Works Originally Created (fixed in tangible form) on or after January 1, 1978

These works are automatically protected from the moment of creation up to the end of the author’s life plus 70 years.  For works made by several authors, it lasts up to the death of the last surviving author plus 70 years.  For works made by hired authors or for anonymous works, it lasts for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

Works Originally Created before January 1, 1978, But Not Published or Registered by That Date

Unpublished or unregistered works before the above given date are automatically awarded federal copyright protection.  This lasts as long as the works created after January 1, 1978. In no case will the works in this category expire before December 31, 2002.  For works published on or before December 31, 2002, the term of copyright will not expire before December 31, 2047.

Works Originally Created and Published or Registered before January 1, 1978

Prior to 1978, copyright is secured only after a work was published or after the work is registered if it is yet unpublished.  For both cases, the copyright lasted for 28 years after which it can be renewed. In 1976, the renewal term was extended from 28 to 47 years for copyrights subsisting on January 1, 1978 making them eligible for protection for around 75 years. Public Law 105-298 [PDF], enacted on October 27, 1998, further lengthened the renewal term of copyrights still subsisting on that date by an additional 20 years, providing for a renewal term of 67 years and a total term of protection of 95 years.

On June 26, 1992, Public Law 102-307, amended the 1976 Copyright Act allowing the automatic renewal of the term of copyrights secured between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977. For a renewal certificate, a renewal application and fee should be paid and the copyright must be registered in the Copyright office.  The law makes renewal registration optional for an extension of the copyright term to the full 95 years.


Will my copyright protect me overseas?::

What many small businesses do not understand is that there are no international copyrights which offers the protection of an author’s writings globally.  Though most countries offer protection to foreign works under certain conditions, copyright protection is mostly dependent on the national laws of that country.

Most Ip rights are territorial meaning that a US patent or trademark only offers protection in the US.  For protection in other countries, the author must apply for protection in those countries.


Can the USPTO and the US Copyright Office protect my intellectual property?::

Though the government provides programs to protect businesses and their intellectual property, it is up to individual businesses to secure protection for their intellectual property and to enforce these rights both here in the U.S. and overseas. Thus, it is important that businesses actively protect their intellectual property aside from registering for them in the federal agencies assigned to them.



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