Intellectual property (IP) is anything that has been created with original thought. Examples include hardware and software inventions, marketing materials, and visual art. Unlike physical property, destroying intellectual property does not extinguish the creator’s ownership rights. The United States government works to protect IP rights, especially in the last few decades.
Types of intellectual property protections
There are several types of intellectual property protections, including copyrights, patents, trademarks.
Copyrights protect creative work such as literature, music, visual art, and technology. Work that is protected by a copyright is indicated by a © symbol. In the United States, the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress oversees all copyright applications and enforcement.
Though this protection does not cover thoughts or ideas, copyright does cover any fixed expression of them, according to current laws. The work’s creator retains the right to extend use to any third parties. Current regulations extend copyright protection for 70 years after the creator’s death, at which point the copyright expires and the work is moved into the public domain.
Instances of copyright infringement—also known as piracy—can incur criminal or civil penalties depending on the perpetrator’s intentions. Civil penalties can range from $750-150,000 in damages per work infringed. Criminal penalties can include up to five years in prison and up to $250,000 per offense.
Patents protect inventions, including machines, designs, and software applications. In the United States, the Patent and Trademark Office of the Department of Commerce oversees all patent applications and enforcement.
Only patent owners are permitted to use and sell their invention, unless they extend those rights to others. In that case, they must publish a document that stipulates precisely how their invention may be used.
Unlike copyright infringement, patent infringement cannot be tried as a criminal case. Instead, patent owners must bring patent infringement cases in civil court. The patent owner must show evidence of infringement and resulting lost profits. The court may award the patent holder royalties, treble damages, and/or a post-trial injunction.
Trademarks protect graphic or physical items designed to distinguish companies and brands. This also extends to specific marketing slogans. Work that is protected by a trademark is indicated by the ™ and ® symbols. In the United States, the Patent and Trademark Office of the Department of Commerce oversees all trademark applications and enforcement.
Trademarks help companies brand and market themselves more effectively, thus creating substantive brand recognition among customers. However, trademarks do not protect any of the business’s goods or services—only the names the business uses to sell them.
Trademark infringement is usually settled with an injunction or a cease-and-desist letter. These court orders stop the infringer from continuing to use the trademarked material. In severe situations, a court may also award the trademark holder monetary damages to offset lost profit.
WIPO IP services
The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) helps multinational companies file IP protections across numerous nation-states. It is a self-funding agency of the United Nations and has 193 member states. WIPO works alongside federal agencies like the United States Patent and Trademark Office to align IP protection policies and ensure international IP systems are meeting the demands of the modern world.
In addition to international IP protection advocacy work, WIPO provides global services to protect IP across borders. An applicant can submit one application that will satisfy protection requirements in multiple countries. These services include:
- The International Patent System, for patents
- The International Trademark System, for trademarks
- The International Design System, for industrial design rights
- The International System of Geographical Indications, for appellations of origin
- Trusted Digital Evidence, for digital assets
- State Emblems, for government names, abbreviations, and emblems
This article was updated August 2021 by Kaiti Norton.