Intellectual property is an intangible creation of the human mind, usually expressed or translated into a tangible form, that is assigned certain rights of property. Examples of intellectual property include an author's copyright on a book or article, a distinctive logo design representing a soft drink company and its products, unique design elements of a web site, or a patent on the process to manufacture chewing gum. Intellectual property law covers the protection of copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets, as well as other legal areas, such as unfair competition. In effect, intellectual property laws give the creator of a new and unique product or idea a temporary monopoly on its use. The value of intellectual property to an individual or company is not based on physical properties, such as size and structure. Instead, intellectual property is valuable because it represents ownership and an exclusive right to use, manufacture, reproduce, or promote a unique creation or idea. In this way, it is perhaps the most valuable asset a person or small business can own.
The laws protecting intellectual property in the United States exist at both the state and federal levels. State laws cover a broad spectrum of intellectual property fields, from trade secrets to the right of publicity. The laws differ somewhat from state to state. At the federal level, the Constitution and legislation authorized under the Constitution deal exclusively with patents and copyrights, and partially with trademarks and related areas of unfair competition.
Intellectual property protection first became an important issue at an international level during trade and tariff negotiations in the nineteenth century, and has remained so ever since. One of the first international treaties relating to intellectual property in the broadest sense was the International Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, or the Paris Convention. Written in 1883, the treaty created under the Paris Convention provided protection for such properties as patents, industrial models and designs, trademarks, and trade names. Over 100 countries have signed the Paris Convention treaty, and it has been modified several times. Two of the most important provisions of the treaty relate to the rights of national treatment and priority.
The right of national treatment ensures that those individuals seeking a patent or trademark in a foreign country will not be discriminated against and will receive the same rights as a citizen of that country. The right of priority provides an inventor one year from the date of filing a patent application in his or her home country (six months for a trademark or design application) to file an application in a foreign country. The legal, effective date of application in the foreign country is then retroactively the legal, effective filing date in the home country, provided the application is made within the protection period. If the invention is made public prior to filing the home country application, however, the right of priority in a foreign country is no longer applicable.
Enforcement and protection of intellectual property at the international level has historically been extremely complex. Laws have varied significantly from country to country, and the political climate within each country has influenced the extent of protection available. Separate legislation and treaties specifically addressed relevant procedures, conventions, and standards for each area within the scope of intellectual property, such as copyright or trade secrets.
Many U.S. and international laws relating to intellectual property were significantly altered with the 1994 passage of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In fact, the member nations that signed the GATT committed themselves to a higher degree of intellectual property protection than had been provided under any earlier multinational treaties. Under the guidance of the World Trade Organization (WTO), all member nations were required to adopt specific provisions for the enforcement of rights and settlement of disputes relating to intellectual property. Under these provisions, trademark counterfeiting and commercial copyright piracy are subject to criminal penalties.
Today, the strong protections of intellectual property are recognized as one of the cornerstones of the formation and growth of small businesses in the United States, especially since the advent of the Internet and other new technologies have placed a premium on new ideas and innovations. Intellectual property allows individuals who come up with a new idea to enjoy the exclusive use of that idea for a certain period of time, which can be a significant monetary incentive for entrepreneurs. But intellectual property law is extraordinarily complex, so small business owners interested in IP issues should consult a legal expert in order to protect themselves to the full extent of the law. "The law on intellectual property … is everywhere both comparatively new and in flux, " observed The Economist (US). It is also important for would-be entrepreneurs to be aware of the legal rights of others as they prepare to engage in business activities. After all, few small companies can withstand the rigors of defending themselves from patent infringement lawsuits (especially if the charge is legitimate).
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