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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

What Is Intellectual Property (IP)?

Intellectual property embodies unique work reflecting someone’s creativity. Intellectual property is all around us. It is manifest in miracle drugs, a new computer game, a movie, or a more fuel efficient car. The three mains areas of intellectual property law are:

Date: 10/14/2011 Description: Trademarks add value when consumers recognize them and know what they represent. At the annual National Trademark Exposition organized by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), consumers enjoy posing with their favorite character trademarks. - State Dept ImageTrademark
A trademark is a word, symbol, or phrase, used to identify a particular manufacturer or seller's products and distinguish them from the products of another. Trademarks are territorial, meaning they are enforceable in a specific geographic territory. In the U.S. trademarks are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and governed by both state and federal law. The main U.S. federal statute is the Lanham Act. In order to serve as a trademark, a mark must be distinctive -- that is, it must be capable of identifying the source of a particular good. A mark’s distinctiveness is based on the relationship between the mark and the underlying product: (1) arbitrary or fanciful; (2) suggestive; (3) descriptive; or (4) generic. The requirements for, and degree of, legal protection afforded a particular trademark will depend upon which of the four categories it falls within. Assuming that a trademark qualifies for protection, rights to a trademark can be acquired either by: (1) being the first to use the mark in commerce; or (2) by being the first to register the mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ("PTO"). Holders of U.S. marks may apply for international registration in countries that have joined the Madrid Protocol.

 A patent is essentially a limited monopoly whereby the patent holder is granted the exclusive right to make, use, and sell the patented innovation for a limited period of time in the United States and its territories. Patents secure for limited times to inventors the exclusive right to their discoveries. Granting exclusive rights to the inventor is intended to encourage the investment of time and resources into the development of new and useful discoveries. In exchange for this limited monopoly, immediate disclosure of the patented information to the USPTO is required. Once the term of protection has ended, the patented innovation enters the public domain. The five primary requirements for patentability are: (1) patentable subject matter; (2) utility; (3) novelty; (4) non-obviousness; and (5) enablement. Like trademarks, patents are territorial, meaning they are enforceable in a specific geographic area.

For information regarding international patent protection, click here. More USPTO Trademark Expo photos»

Copyright is granted by law for original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright protects original works such as literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. Poetry, novels, movies, songs and computer software are a few examples of works that can be protected via copyright. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way things are expressed. The U.S. Copyright Office registers claims for copyrights, and although such registration is voluntary, there are some legal benefits afforded to authors who do register. In the U.S. the term of copyright protection varies. However, the basic term of protection is life of the author plus 70 years after his death.

There is no such thing as an "international copyright." Protection against unauthorized use in a particular country depends, basically, on the national laws of that country. For further information and a list of countries that maintain copyright relations with the United States, read Circular 38a [PDF], "International Copyright Relations of the United States."


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