How Can I Legally Protect My Work? A Guide to Intellectual Property

Intellectual property simply refers to the rights of ownership or use of a work or creation of some kind.

There are four main categories of intellectual property: copyright, trademark, patent, and trade secret. In brief, here is what each category protects:

  • Copyright protects original creative works.
  • Patent protects an original useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement on these things.
  • Trademark protects branding such as business names and logos.
  • Trade Secret protects important business related information, such as recipes and lists of customers.

A related area of law is your “right of publicity” to your likeness.

See below for full list of works and how to protect them

So how do I protect my ideas?

Ideas and information is harder to protect, compared to protecting the work that contains the information. For example, you can get a copyright for a book, which means others cannot use the words of the book without your permission. But someone can take what they learned from the book and create something new from that (as long as it’s sufficiently new).

There are a few possible ways to protect ideas: patent, trade secret, and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

Patents can protect certain inventions and innovations, but are difficult to obtain, and require registration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Trade secret protection is easier, and there is no registration. You essentially need to clearly treat the information as confidential, marking such documents clearly at the top with something like “CONFIDENTIAL: NOT TO BE SHARED.” Then, if someone does “leak” or share the document, you can sue them for a violation of your trade secret rights.

Non disclosure agreements (NDAs), or confidentiality agreements, are similar to trade secret. You are getting another party to agree not to disclose your idea or other information. If the other party does spill the beans, then you can sue them for violation of the agreement.

Types of work and ways to protect them:

  1. Visual art
    • Graphic designs
      1. For art or general use: copyright
      2. use as business logo: copyright or trademark
    • Street art: copyright
    • Photography: copyright
    • Movies/Video
      1. Actual content: copyright
      2. Fictional characters within the work: copyright & (maybe) trademark
      3. name of series or movie franchise: trademark
    • Paintings: copyright
    • Sculpture: copyright
    • Architecture: copyright
  1. Software
    • Actual Code: copyright & patent
    • name of software: trademark
  2. Writing
    • Books
      1. Content: copyright
      2. Fictional characters: copyright & (maybe) trademark
      3. name of book series: trademark
    • Articles: copyright
  1. Music
    • Song: copyright
    • band name: trademark
  2. Websites & Blogs
    • Content: copyright
    • website name: trademark
  3. Theater
    • Content: copyright
    • Fictional characters: copyright & (maybe) trademark
  4. Comedy
    • Jokes: probably not protectable
    • Memes: probably not protectable
  5. Fashion
    • Patterns: copyright
      • But some patterns are in the public domain*: stripes, many plaids, ginghams, and houndstooth checks
    • Generic (non-iconic) forms or styles (E.g. cut, sleeve length, neck openings, etc.) = NO PROTECTION
    • If overall design or design element conceptually separate from functional clothing, and is a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work (e.g. jewelry; sculptural belt buckle, chevron pattern): copyright
    • Iconic patterns/designs (e.g. Louis Vuitton symbols): trademark
    • New and novel functional items (e.g. Velcro; zipper): patent
    • Label: trademark
  1. Furniture
    • Patterns: copyright
    • Design element conceptually separate from function of furniture: copyright
    • New functionality of furniture: patent
  2. Inventions: patent
  3. Business plans and charts: copyright & trade secret

*public domain = a work that is not copyrightable either because the copyright expired or the copyright owner placed it in the public domain

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