Before you can understand whether you own the intellectual property you develop in the workplace, it helps to define the term. “Intellectual property refers to an exclusive right to a particular form of creative expression,” said Omid Khalifeh, intellectual property attorney at Omni Legal Group. “This could be artistic expression as with copyrights, utilitarian and functional as with patents, or related to branding, like with trademarks.”
Copyrights, patents and trademarks are mechanisms by which the owner of intellectual property can protect it from misuse or unauthorized replication. They are related, but each applies to specific types of intellectual property:
Trade secrets: Trade secrets fall under intellectual property laws. The information holds commercial value in that it could potentially be very lucrative. Trade secrets may only known by a limited number of individuals in the company, and companies may require that employees sign a nondisclosure agreement. Industrial designs: An industrial design involves the visual or aesthetic design of an object. It can be the proprietary design of a company’s flagship product that differentiates it from similar products.
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Copyrights: Copyrights technically exist the moment a work is created, but they are practically unenforceable unless you register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Copyright protections expire after the author’s lifetime plus 70 years (or 95 to 120 years, depending on the nature of the intellectual property). [Read related article: Copyright Infringement: Are You Stealing Intellectual Property?]
Patents: A patent protects an invention for a limited duration of time. They cover things like machines, manufactured goods, industrial processes and chemical compositions. A patent extends the exclusive rights to the owner of the intellectual property to produce, use and sell the invention.
Trademarks: Trademarks relate to company branding. Under common law, you can claim a trademark by placing a “TM” superscript at the end of your brand or product name. If you register your brand with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), you may affix the encircled “R” symbol at the end of your brand or product name.