Intellectual Property Law

Intellectual property laws dictate the use and ownership over inventions, plans, processes, artwork, designs, music, writing, and other forms of creative property. These laws protect the rights of creators and businesses when it comes to their work, their trademarks, even their trade secrets, and provides them with legal options when someone steals their property. If someone is using your intellectual property without your permission, speak with an IP attorney today to learn your rights.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Aug 19, 2021

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  • There are four key types of intellectual property: copyrights, trademarks, patents, and trade secrets
  • You may need to hire an intellectual property attorney when someone else uses your work without permission or if you are facing allegations of using someone else’s intellectual property unfairly
  • If someone steals your intellectual property, contact an IP law firm lawyer and have an attorney issue a cease and desist letter to the offending party

Owners of intellectual and creative property are due the same rights as owners of physical property, and creators have the right to determine what happens to their work unless a legally binding business contract indicates otherwise.

Understanding intellectual property (IP) law and its relationship with business law are critical to ensuring you’re able to protect your own creative property. Keep reading to learn where to register your intellectual property and how to get in touch with a local IP attorney today.

If you’ve experienced a violation of your intellectual property, whether through direct theft of creative work or illegal sharing of trade secrets, or have been accused of stealing someone else’s intellectual property, an IP lawyer can provide legal guidance. Use our free search tool above to find an affordable intellectual property law firm near you.

What does an intellectual property lawyer do?

Your intellectual property is every bit as important as your physical property, often more so when the creative property is a sole source of income. You put a great deal of energy, finances, and effort into creating, and there are legal steps you can take to protect your work.

If you’re unsure of where to register your intellectual property, get in touch with an attorney who is experienced in IP law.

Below are several occasions when you might need to hire an intellectual property lawyer to protect your creative property:

Registering Intellectual Property

The paperwork needed to acquire copyright, patents, or to register a trademark can be complicated, and you may not always have your application approved the first time.

An intellectual property lawyer can help you fill out the paperwork and make the filing process easier by identifying any potential challenges you may face in registering and protecting your intellectual property.

Intellectual Property Law Violations

When someone is using your intellectual property without permission, an attorney can compose a formal cease and desist letter on your behalf that shows your ownership of the property and reminds the entity using the property that they lack permission to use it. This letter can also direct them to the proper channels where they can get permission to use that property: for example, securing rights to use a song or a piece of artwork.

In some cases, you may need to file a lawsuit forcing that party to stop using your intellectual property. If the accused party using your intellectual property made a great deal of money off of your property, you may need to formally take them to court to prove what is owed to you.

Most intellectual property claims are resolved out of court with both parties agreeing to a fair resolution presented by their attorneys. In other cases, however, you may have to go to court and have a judge rule on your claim.

If you’ve been accused of using someone else’s intellectual property without permission, hire an intellectual property lawyer as soon as possible.

Creative works can be incredibly complex and varied. In some cases, many people may come up with very similar variations of the same concept at the same time. Other times, someone else may have come up with a close copy of your own intellectual property and presented it as their own, with no connection to yours at all, only to see your concept later and accuse you of using their idea, concept, or work without permission.

An intellectual property lawyer can help defend you against those accusations and make it easier for you to protect your own work or prevent costly lawsuits related to that material.

Some brands and businesses police their copyrights, trademarks, and intellectual property very aggressively, refusing to allow anyone to use any of their intellectual property for any reason. Some of their assertions, however, are far more aggressive than reasonable, and more aggressive than the law intends. An intellectual property lawyer can help you understand the law, how it pertains to your specific usage of the material, and what you may need to do in order to avoid further legal action.

Nondisclosure Agreement Violations

While it’s impossible to fully patent and protect trade secrets, especially when it comes to specific processes, recipes, or sales tactics, you may want to protect them as closely as possible with a nondisclosure agreement.

If someone you work with violates the terms of a nondisclosure agreement (NDA), sharing that complex, private business information with others, you may have the right to file a lawsuit against them. An intellectual property attorney can help go over the violation, give you clear advice about your options, and even help you take legal action against the party that committed the violation.

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What does intellectual property law involve?

Intellectual property law deals with a variety of intangible human creations, from music to recipes to the trade secrets that shape the way a specific company runs its business.

Intellectual property law usually falls into four basic categories:

  1. Copyright Law
  2. Patent Law
  3. Trademark Law
  4. Trade Secrets

Depending on your area of business or creative endeavors, you may need an attorney experienced with one or more types of intellectual property law. Scroll down to learn more about copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets and when to hire an attorney with experience in various types of intellectual property law.

What are copyrights?

Copyrights are a form of protection provided to the authors of original works.

Examples of works that qualify for copyright protection include:

  • Writing
  • Pictures, including both artwork and photographs
  • Music
  • Other types of art
  • Intellectual or creative works you have designed

When you create an original work that you do not want someone else to use without your consent, you can apply for copyright for that work. Registering copyright indicates three key things:

  1. First, others cannot use or reuse your intellectual property without your permission, which means you can determine how it will be used in the future;
  2. Others who use that work must attribute it to you, and;
  3. Finally, anyone who wishes to use your intellectual property must contact you in order to use it.

Copyrights are not required, but applying for copyright will better establish your ownership in court when and if someone decides to acquire your work and use it as they see fit. Learn more about how to apply for copyright below.

How can you apply for a copyright?

You can register a copyright for your work through the Registration Portal on the U.S. Copyright website. The standard application will allow you to register works that fit under several categories, including:

  • Literary works
  • Performing arts
  • Visual arts
  • Digital content
  • Motion pictures
  • Photographs

Figure out which category your creation falls into and use the appropriate application link on the Registration Portal to register your work. You can register up to 10 unpublished works on the same application as long as you use the Group of Works application.

What is a patent?

A patent for an invention grants the rights of the created property to the inventor of the item or concept. The types of inventions that qualify for patent protection include the creation or discovery of any new and useful item, process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter. It also includes improvements to existing processes, machines, manufacturing styles, or compositions.

A patent typically lasts for 20 years after its application date.

Patents protect the creator of the original item but do not protect against reverse engineering. This is when someone else, often a competitor, takes apart your concept or design, figures out how to create it on their own, and then updates, improves, or otherwise changes the design so that is different enough from the original to be its own invention.

How can I apply for a patent?

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office provides a detailed patent application. In order to file for a patent, you will need to show that your invention, process, or creation is innovative, brand new, or changes an existing creation or process into something brand new.

What is a trademark?

Trademarks cover highly specific intellectual property: a word, phrase, symbol, design, or some combination of those items that distinguish the goods or services of one party from another in the same industry.

Trademarked items typically represent specific brands. For example, most people are familiar with the Nike swoosh and Mcdonald’s golden arches. Specific identifiers like these that are linked heavily with a company’s branding are trademarked to prevent other brands from using them to market themselves.

Most of the time, businesses trademark their logos, taglines, key marketing catchphrases, and other elements and designs of their advertisements. However, companies are at liberty to register trademarks that set them apart from their competitors. For example, Coca-Cola trademarked the shape of its bottles, which are unique and clearly identifiable at a distance.

How can I register a trademark?

You can register trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, just like you can register patents. Be aware that the cost to register a trademark changes as often as the price of postage stamps. Research how much the government charges for trademark registration filings before you apply so you aren’t caught by surprise.

It’s important to register the key details of your business and the factors that differentiate it as soon as possible so that your competitors cannot use those elements to compete with you or spoof your identity. This could make it more difficult to set your business apart from the crowd in the future and why trademarks are so important.

What are trade secrets?

Trade secrets cover specific pieces of confidential corporate information that help set the business apart in the industry. For example, KFC’s secret spice recipe and the magic ingredient in Raising Cane’s Chicken sauce are both fast food trade secrets.

Beyond recipes, trade secrets can include specific elements of how the business operates and reaches its customers as effectively as possible, including distribution methods, ad campaigns, consumer information, vendor and client lists, or sales methods.

Trade secrets are usually protected by nondisclosure agreements. NDAs are a type of business contract that can forbid employees from discussing trade secrets, retaining ownership over intellectual property, and more.

What is a nondisclosure agreement, and how does it help protect trade secrets?

NDAs are typically signed by an employee or contractor with access to sensitive information about the business as a whole or who is creating intellectual property for said business. Often, anyone who works for or with a specific company must sign a nondisclosure agreement indicating that they will not share trade secrets with competitors or use them for their own purposes in the future.

The agreement helps protect the human side of intellectual property that cannot be copyrighted, trademarked, or patented. Trade secrets are often strategies and solutions that can be used in a variety of situations and do not have to be registered with the federal government like other types of intellectual property. On the surface, it appears that many different businesses may use very similar processes and methods. However, it’s impossible to fully evaluate just how similar those processes are, and disclosing or leaking such information could result in significant hardship for the business.

What happens if you break an NDA? The terms of the nondisclosure agreement will typically set out penalties, often in the form of fines, for employees and contractors who disclose private information.

Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to break the terms of an NDA when a company is operating outside of the law or otherwise using non-disclosure agreements to keep employees quiet regarding illegal activities.  Many NDAs include unenforceable penalties, which may void the rest of the contract. A lawyer can review your nondisclosure agreements and give you legal advice regarding how to move forward.

NDAs are not the only way to protect trade secrets. Keep your business safe by using secure and encrypted webservers and implementing security processes for when employees leave the company to ensure that they do not retain access to either physical drives or internal company information.

These protections are not absolute. Contact an intellectual property attorney as soon as possible to learn more about your rights if you lose trade secrets that are important to your organization.

What should I do if someone steals my intellectual property?

Finding out that someone has stolen your intellectual property can leave you frustrated and determined to immediately take as many steps as possible to fix the problem.

Do not take rash actions when someone has stolen your intellectual property. Refrain from issuing threats or retaliating in any way as this can come back to haunt you in the form of assault charges or civil suits.

Instead, follow these steps to legally protect your rights and your intellectual property:

Get in Touch with an IP Lawyer

Before you take any action, get in touch with an intellectual property law firm to discuss your rights and determine if someone actually violated intellectual property law by using your material.

For example, if someone sings a song you wrote in a talent show at a local school, that is probably not significant copyright infringement. But if that someone sang that same song online, claiming it as their own, that might count as copyright infringement and could result in significant penalties. A lawyer can discuss intellectual property law with you and help you better understand what options you have following that theft.

Keep in mind that if your material is not registered as a copyright, patent, or trademark with the federal government, you cannot receive any type of compensation for material used during the period before registration.

Issue a Cease and Desist Notice

When you issue a cease and desist letter, make sure you issue it in writing. Keep a copy for your own records and give one to your attorney. In some cases, a private citizen can send a cease and desist letter to someone without a lawyer; other times, you may want to have an attorney draw up the letter and submit it for you.

A cease and desist letter must include:

  • Details of the infringement, including the work that was infringed and whether that work was copyrighted, patented, trademarked
  • Next steps you want the person or company to take, including removing the work from their websites and/or requesting payment for the work
  • Timeline of when those steps need to be taken

An attorney can advise you about a reasonable timeline for the actions to be taken, based on the specific type of infringement and where that content is posted. For example, it could be much easier to remove a stolen photograph or piece of artwork from a single internet site than to remove it from a larger marketing campaign.

Take Legal Action

You submitted a cease and desist letter, but the other party did not take down your content or stop using it. Now what? You may have the right to take further legal action.

An experienced intellectual property attorney can help you figure out your next steps, which may include either a criminal complaint or a civil case. Most of the time, you will handle copyright, trademark, and patent infringement cases in civil court, where you can get legal injunctions to stop the person from using your intellectual property, payment for your losses, and a potential share of the profits related to the use of your intellectual property.

Do you need to find an affordable intellectual property lawyer to help you decide what to do next, whether it’s registering your intellectual property or fighting the theft of intellectual property? Find one for free with our legal tool below. Enter your ZIP code to speak with an IP attorney right now.

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