Patents, Copyrights and Trademarks For Dummies
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Licensing violations are among the most prevalent examples of intellectual property rights infringement. Other examples include plagiarism, software piracy, and corporate espionage.

Intellectual property rights worldwide are agreed, defined, and enforced by various organizations and treaties, including the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), World Customs Organization (WCO), World Trade Organization (WTO), United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL), European Union (EU), and Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs).

Intellectual property is protected by U.S. law under one of the following four classifications.


A patent is defined by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) as "the grant of a property right to the inventor." A patent grant confers upon the owner "the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling, or importing the invention." Examples of computer-related objects that may be protected by patents are computer hardware and physical devices in firmware.

A patent is granted by the U.S. PTO for an invention that has been sufficiently documented by the applicant and that has been verified as original by the PTO. A patent is generally valid for 20 years from the date of application and is effective only within the U.S., including territories and possessions. The owner of the patent may then grant a license to others for use of the invention or its design, often for a fee.

The Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) provides some international protection for patents. More than 130 countries worldwide have adopted the PCT.

Patent grants were previously valid for only 17 years but have recently been changed, for newly granted patents, to 20 years.


A trademark, as defined by the U.S. PTO, is "any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used, in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods of one manufacturer or seller from goods manufactured or sold by others." Computer-related objects that may be protected by trademarks include corporate brands and operating system logos. U.S. Public Law 105–330, the Trademark Law Treaty Implementation Act, provides some international protection for U.S.-registered trademarks.


A copyright is a form of protection granted to the authors of "original works of authorship," both published and unpublished. A copyright protects a tangible form of expression rather than the idea or subject matter itself. Under the original Copyright Act of 1909, publication was generally the key to obtaining a federal copyright. However, the Copyright Act of 1976 changed this requirement, and copyright protection now applies to any original work of authorship immediately from the time that it's created in a tangible form. Object code and documentation are examples of computer-related objects that may be protected by copyrights.

Copyrights can be registered through the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, but a work doesn't need to be registered to be protected by copyright. Copyright protection generally lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years.

Trade secret

A trade secret is proprietary or business-related information that a company or individual uses and has exclusive rights to. To be considered a trade secret, the information must meet the following requirements:
  • Must be genuine and not obvious: Any unique method of accomplishing a task would constitute a trade secret, especially if it is backed up by copyrighted, patented, or copyrighted proprietary software or methods that give an organization a competitive advantage.
  • Must provide the owner a competitive or economic advantage and, therefore, have value to the owner: Google's indexing algorithms aren't universally known. Some secrets are protected.
  • Must be reasonably protected from disclosure: This doesn't mean that it must be kept absolutely and exclusively secret, but the owner must exercise due care in its protection.
Software source code or firmware code are examples of computer-related objects that may be protected as trade secrets.

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