HIGHLANDS HEIGHTS, Ky. -- In a world that values collaboration and sharing, the term “intellectual property” can seem outdated. Should anyone “own” ideas globally available on the Internet?
While policymakers debate the future of intellectual property (IP), independent inventors, small businesses, creative professionals, educators, publishers, and students must understand intellectual property laws as they currently exist.
The Intellectual Property Awareness Center (IPAC) at Northern Kentucky University helps businesses and creative people understand the differences between copyright, trademark, and patents.
“Knowledge of intellectual property is important not only for the protection of works we create, but also when we borrow and use other people’s works,” said John Schlipp, intellectual property librarian at the W. Frank Steely Library at Northern Kentucky University (NKU).
Awareness of intellectual property rights can help businesses and individuals avoid costly infringement actions.
“Intellectual property is associated with one’s legal ownership and exclusive rights to authorize reproduction of one’s intellectual work,” Schlipp said. “Businesses, especially new start-ups, often overlook IP as a valuable asset.” Companies and individuals can earn income by licensing their IP rights to others.
Protecting rights online
Ever since U.S. copyright laws were revised in 1976, anyone who creates an original work automatically owns the copyright to it, regardless of whether the copyright symbol is displayed.
“Today, it’s very confusing when people don’t post the copyright symbol with their content, because some people may think it’s just there for the taking. That’s just not so,” Schlipp said.
While some people hope posted content will go viral, others risk losing money if posted work is re-used without permission.
Copying online content can be incredibly easy. But IP owners have started using content-recognition software to identify copyrighted films, music, photographs, and text that have been published online without the creator’s permission.
The best way to protect yourself from receiving “cease and desist” letters from attorneys is to understand the basics of IP laws.
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What's the difference?
Patents protect unique processes, methods, and inventions and are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) of the Department of Commerce. Obtaining a patent is expensive, but the protection is very strong. Currently, U.S. patents last up to 20 years.
Trademarks are words, names, phrases, or symbols that identify or distinguish the business or provider of goods, services, or ideas. Trademarks can be registered with the USPTO or a state agency. Trademarks don’t expire, as long as the organization continues to pay annual fees to keep them registered.
Copyrights protect the expression of ideas by authors, songwriters, playwrights, photographers, artists, and others. Copyrights are registered with the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress and currently last for the life of the creator plus 70 years. While copyrights protect how ideas are expressed, they don’t protect the ideas themselves.
NKU's IPAC could save you time, money
The IPAC at NKU doesn’t provide legal advice, but can help reduce the number of billable hours you may need from an attorney.
“We are not lawyers,” Schlipp said. “We are professional librarians who have been trained to educate and instruct people about resources.”
For example, the IPAC can recommend IP guidebooks specifically for nonprofits, musicians, and associations. Once you have a better understanding of your IP requirements, the IPAC can suggest ways to find qualified attorneys.
In 2013, the IPAC at NKU’s Steely Library became an official Patent and Trademark Resource Center (PTRC). As part of a network of 84 centers, the PTRC provides access to the patent-application databases of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (PLCH) has been home to a PTRC since the program originated in 1871.
The PTRCs support independent inventors, IP attorneys, businesses, entrepreneurs, students, historians, and the general public by making resources available to those who can’t travel to USPTO headquarters in Alexandria, Va.
Developers and creators can get help using patent and trademark documents, learn how to search USPTO databases, and attend seminars. Staffers at PRTCs can answer questions such as:
- How do I get a patent for my invention?
- How do I find out if my idea has been patented as a product before?
- How do I bring my invented product to the marketplace?
- How do I trademark my business, product, or service name?
PRTC services provide a free alternative to commercial invention-promotion services marketed by unscrupulous companies that want to capitalize on an inventor’s enthusiasm and naiveté. Schlipp said some novice inventors
have blown their life savings on some services they could have accomplished free with the help of a PTRC.
Schlipp partners with Linda Kocis at Cincinnati’s PTRC to present IP-related classes to inventors, businesses, and students. Topics include: An Introduction to Intellectual Property, Patent Searching for Beginners, and Advanced Patent Searching.
Save the dates: The next Introduction to Intellectual Property class is Feb. 15 from 2:30 to 4:30 pm at the main library of PLCH. Advanced Patent Searching classes are scheduled on selected Tuesday evenings and Saturday afternoons at the NKU Steely Library January 21 through May 20.
“People really appreciate the classes,” Kocis said. “The process of acquiring a patent can seem overwhelming.”
Join the club
Kocis also encourages patent-seekers to attend meetings of the Inventor’s Council of Cincinnati, a nonprofit group of independent inventors and entrepreneurs that meets at the main library of PLCH. A half-hour lesson on how to search the USPTO’s databases is offered before each monthly meeting.
In addition, Schlipp and Kocis train teachers and students to avoid plagiarism in lesson plans, research papers, and publishing projects. In 2009, they led the development of “Creative Thinking,” a website and DVD that educate teens and young adults about copyright law and plagiarism.
Last summer Schlipp and Kocis presented a “Superhero Matinee” for school children ages 6 to 12. Because they tied intellectual property to superheroes and comic book characters, the concepts really clicked.
“We not only talked about the authors who created the characters and stories, but also about the creative people who turn the stories into motion pictures,” Schlipp said. “And we connected it to inventions and gizmos that the superheroes use.” When the students created their own superhero stories and artwork, they quickly added copyright symbols.
Save the date: On April 12, Schlipp and Kocis will present a program for teens and adults called “Behind the Mask: Superheroes and Intellectual Property” as part of ComicCon 2014 at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
Taking care of business
Schlipp believes cultivating a greater awareness of intellectual property contributes to the economic development of the Cincinnati region. IPAC partners with the Better Business Bureau and the UpTech business incubator to provide programs specifically targeted to businesses.
“Whether a small business owner is looking to innovate from within by developing a new product, or they are looking to stay up to date on what their competition is up to, it is extremely valuable to have a free resource in this region that allows small business owners to conduct patent and trademark research.”
Connect with WCPO Contributor Eileen Fritsch on Twitter: @EileenFritsch
Note: WCPO community editor Holly Edgell is an adjunct instructor at Northern Kentucky University.