intellectual property

How to Protect Your Intellectual Property

Photo courtesy of Horia Varlan via Flickr. Modified by Curiousmatic. 

Property comes in all forms, and sometimes that form isn’t something physically tangible. 

While it’s unlikely someone will be able to rob you of your house or your car over the internet, creative works and ideas are subject to different types of theft, and can be more difficult to protect. If only it was as easy as building an alligator-filled moat around your logo, haiku, or screen-play. Unfortunately, technology hasn’t gotten there yet (and moats are quite outdated).

First things first: What is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual Property, or IP, comes in two forms: Industrial property, which applies to inventions, trademarks, patents, and industrial designs, and copyright, which applies to artistic works such as photographs, novels, poems, and designs, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

Basically, any work born of your creativity/brain, either individually or collectively, is intellectual property – and you have the right to it, like anything object – perhaps even more so, because it was made and not bought.

Intellectual Property before the Web: Click to expand for some history on IP.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy traces the idea of intellectual property back to ancient times, when in 500 B.C.E chefs of the Greek colony Sybaris were granted year-long monopolies for their culinary creations.

In another case, Roman author Vitruvious exposed intellectual property theft during a literary contest in Alexandria: the accused false-poets were subsequently tried, convicted, and disgraced.[contextly_auto_sidebar]

Jumping a bit, to 1421: the first known intellectual property protection statute was established in the Republic of Florence, though only one patent was issued. The Venetian Republic saw a more lasting statute in 1474, which actively recognized the rights of inventors.

The English systems Statute of Monopolies (1624) and the Statute of Ann (1710), the former of which granted 14-year monopolies to authors and inventors, and the latter of which allowed 14-year extensions to authors if alive. This is acknowledged as the first statue of modern copyright.

According to WIPO, the need for more solid intellectual property protection became evident when foreign exhibitors refused to attend the International Exhibition of Inventions in Vienna in 1873 because they were afraid their ideas would be stolen and exploited.

Types of IP: Copyright vs. Patents vs. Trademark

Depending on what type of intellectual property you have, there are different types of protection you can get specific to the nature of your work. The three main types are copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Knowing which is which is the first way to ensure your work is protected.

Copyright: Click to expand.
According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), copyright applies to producers of literary and artistic works, including books and other writings, musical compositions, paintings, sculptures, and films. They are protected for a minimum of 70 years after the author’s death.

According to, U.S. copyright law generally gives the author/creator or owner of an original creative work an exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce (copy) or distribute the original work to the public

  • Create new works based upon the original work

  • Perform or display the work publicly

Copyright is automatic on the creation of any work in a tangible form, and does not need to be registered.

Patent: Click to expand.
Unlike copyright, patents must be applied for in order to secure an invention’s protection. The patented invention must be a product of process that generally provides either a new way of doing something or a technical solution to a problem. Patent protection is limited; usually to about 20 years.

WIPO details that under a patent, an invention cannot be made, used, distributed or sold without the patent holder’s consent.

Trademark: Click to expand.

According to the Internet Public Library as defined by Black’s Law dictionary, trademark a word, phrase, logo, or other graphic symbol used by a manufacturer or seller to distinguish its product or products from those of others.

To receive federal protection, a trademark must be

  • distinctive rather than merely descriptive or generic

  • affixed to a product that is actually sold in the marketplace; and

  • registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Complications: Risks of IP theft (and what you can do to stop it)

The existence and prevalence of the internet in today’s world makes intellectual property much more difficult to protect and track. According to the Internet Society, the very nature and architecture of the internet defies traditional IP concepts.

With multitudes of people able to produce, exchange, and distribute all at once, the internet empowers creativity and innovation, but also makes it nearly impossible to control.

While organizations like the Internet Society are working diligently to address the ways in which a reconciliation between the architecture of the internet and the right of authorship should come to be, here’s what you can do for your work:

1. Make sure your copyright or trademark is stated clearly, where it can be seen. Watermarks can be effective for photography and art.

2. If you notice that someone has infringed upon your rights, contact them and order them to remove your work or credit/compensate you.

4. Or, you can take proof of infringement to an attorney.


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Jennifer Markert