How Patents Work

Patents and Intellectual Property
Different intellectual property symbols
Different intellectual property symbols

In most modern nations, there is an established system for protecting intellectual property, the product of a person or company's originality and creativity. The broadest protection of this sort is the copyright. Copyrights are intended to protect "original works of authorship" that are in a tangible form. This includes paintings, books, movies, choreographed dances (if the steps are written down), music, architecture and all other sorts of art. For a set length of time, these works cannot be copied or reproduced without the copyright-holder's permission. In the United States, the protection extends for the life of the copyright-holder plus 70 years (for works created after January 1, 1978). If a company owns the copyright, the protection lasts anywhere from 95 to 120 years depending on whether or not the work was published [ref].

Copyrights do not protect the ideas put forth by a particular piece of art; they only protect the way in which those ideas are presented. In this article, for example, the information about copyrights and patents is not owned by anybody, but the sentences and paragraphs used to explain this information are copyrighted by this Web site. In the United States and many other countries, any original work of authorship is automatically copyrighted as soon as it is created. To learn more about copyrights, see What are copyrights and patents?.

Other sorts of intellectual-property protection are much narrower in scope. Trademarks protect designs and phrases that businesses use to distinguish their product from other companies' products, and trade secrets protect proprietary information that must be kept secret in order for a business to profit (the recipe for Coca-cola, for example).

Of all of the forms of intellectual-property protection, patents are the most complex and tightly regulated. Patents are basically copyrights for inventions, defined by U.S. patent law as "any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof." Unlike copyrights, patents protect the idea or design of the invention, rather than the tangible form of the invention itself. Consequently, patenting something is a much trickier procedure than copyrighting something.