"He, who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement, or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property."

- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Isaac McPherson, August 13, 1813

Intellectual Property is a term for four legal devices; Trademark, copyright, trade secrets, and patents. Many say that intellectual property laws dampen the pace of progress because they keep information from being freely shared and distributed to all, which would almost guarantee improvement and innovation. The reason intellectual property laws exist is because in a capitalistic system self-interest rules all. Intellectual property laws guarantee that the creator(s) of an idea/invention/etc receive financial gain from their hard work. In essence, the creator(s) of something receives a government sponsored monopoly for his/her product.


Trademark law protects the right of a businessman to use marks that distinguish his goods/services from others. Trademark law keeps people who sell similar goods/services from using a similar mark or symbol that could cause confusion. Trademark rights are given on the basis of geographic location and product/services. This way it is legal for two similar or identical trademarks to legally coexist, either because they represent two different products for two different markets, or they are on opposite sides of the globe. Due to globalization and the like, it is very rare to legally have two identical trademarks for similar products. In order to get a trademark, one must register it at the USPTO, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The USPTO has two different trademark registers, the Principal register and the Supplemental register. The Principal register is used to register distinctive trademarks, while the Supplemental is used to register trademarks that lack distinct characteristics. Trademarks may not include the ® until it has be filed with the USPTO.


Copyright gives the owner of a novel, movie, etc ownership of it. Copyright can be given to anyone who has created an original work in a tangible medium, be it words, code, or images. To be original the author(s) must have independently created the work. It also must exhibit some degree of creativity. The owner (author or the company the author worked for) has the following rights regarding the work

  • The right to reproduce the copyrighted work
  • The right to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work (sequels!)
  • The right to distribute copies of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership. (Applies to different mediums; an author has the right to sell his book, and his book on tape, and possibly a movie based on his book)
  • The right to perform/display the copy written works publicly

The instant something copyrightable is created, the author is entitled to the rights thereof. Registering the work with the U.S. Copyright office comes with a number of benefits. Domestic copyright owners must file with the U.S. copyright office before suing someone for copyright infringement. A certificate of copyright obtained before, or within five years, of publication is a holy grail of evidence should the copyright ever be questioned. Copyrighted works are subject to fair use as defined in section 107 of copyright law; criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Making 20 copies of a Spanish textbook for deprived, tired, hungry schoolchildren is fair, while making 1,000 to sell for profit is not.

Trade Secrets

A trade secret is a secret formula/invention/idea that is the cornerstone of a company. Trade secrets do not have to be registered with the government, but are entitled to trade secret protection. Secrets are entitled to trade secret protection until they are no longer a secret. Knowingly disclosing a trade secret is a crime. The 1996 Economic Espionage act gives the attorney general sweeping powers to prosecute anyone who has, or might spill the beans on a trade secret. A classic trade secret is Coca Cola?s secret formula. The formula has not been patented by Coca Cola, because then anyone could look up the patent and get the formula. Coca Cola, like most companies who wish to protect their trade secrets, require employees who know the big secret to sign a NDA (non-disclosure agreement). If someone who has signed an NDA speaks, the company can sue that person for damages. Coca Cola?s big secret is locked in an Atlanta vault, and known to only two employees, whose identities are secret. These two people cannot fly on a plane together, and are generally kept separate as to keep an accident from wiping them (and temporarily the secret formula) out.


There are three different types of patents, utility, design, and plant. The following from the U.S. patent office describes what can be patented.

In the language of the statute, any person who ?invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent,? subject to the conditions and requirements of the law. The word ?process? is defined by law as a process, act or method, and primarily includes industrial or technical processes. The term ?machine? used in the statute needs no explanation. The term ?manufacture? refers to articles that are made, and includes all manufactured articles. The term ?composition of matter? relates to chemical compositions and may include mixtures of ingredients as well as new chemical compounds. These classes of subject matter taken together include practically everything that is made by man and the processes for making the products.

It must be noted that the atomic energy act of 1954 excludes the patenting of inventions useful solely in the utilization of special nuclear material or atomic energy for atomic weapons.

  • Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or compositions of matters, or any new useful improvement thereof;
  • Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture
  • Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plants. With the advent of genetic engineering, plant patents may become obsolete or replaced with a type of patent that can be used for any new life form. A debate rages on whether someone may patent a cell, enzyme, protein, etc that is common to all members of the human race


As stated earlier, IP laws are designed to further the knowledge of all mankind by encouraging people to come up with new ideas. Inventors and authors get a limited monopoly on their works so that they may reap the benefits. The Berne Convention (in 1886 established that nations recognize of copyrights of other nations) limited copyright rights to someone for their life and 50 years after their death. Assuming current copywrite laws were in effect in the time of Shakespeare, he would have received money from his plays for his entire life, and for fifty years thereafter, whoever was in his will would get the money. After that his works would fall in the public domain (which is where they currently are). That means no one owns the rights to Shakespeare?s work and one can copy and distribute them without fear of reprisals.

In 1998 the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (known unofficially as the Mickey Mouse Act) changed all that. It changed copyright law from life plus 50 years to life plus 70 years, in the case of companies, 75 years to 95 years. The act was supported heavily by Disney (most likely proposed to a senator by it) because of a certain cartoon character that makes Disney bazillions of dollars. In 1928 Walt Disney created a short film called, ?Steamboat Willie? staring a certain animated mouse. The passage of the copywrite extension act kept that mouse from falling into the public domain, and kept Disney from having to fall upon other, less entertaining characters.

Many who oppose the act cite the US constitution section 8 clause 8;

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

The first copyright law (signed by George Washington in 1790) gave the author 14 years of protection, with a chance to renew it for another 14 years. Without taking into effect infant mortality, life spans have not increased exponentially, and patents still last only 20 years. Now copyrights are given to companies that last longer then the employees that authored property.

IP Laws in the Computer Age

Computer technology speeds millions of times faster then, say, language. IP law remains the same. Computer code can be, and is, copyrighted in the same manner as a novel. In a hundred or so years when the novel falls into the public domain, many will read it. When the computer code falls into the public domain, odds are computers will be unable to compile and run it. When copyright law was originally written, the average Joe didn?t have access to a printing press, and wouldn?t be able to distribute copyrighted works. Now in the age of computers anyone can put something on the internet and watch it multiply as it spreads and is distributed by others. In order to ?protect? copyright holders in the digital age, congress passed the

Digital Millennium Copyright Act

the DMCA, among other things were included in the report I made for school, but they are better explained in more depth in other nodes. Here is a list if you wish to learn more about IP laws in the Age of Computers

Disclaimer; this was written about IP laws in the USA. Yours might be different

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