Two of the most famous patent scandals were that of the light bulb and Facebook. We all knew Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but he actually got the idea from other inventors and combined them with his own idea. In fact, Canadian inventors Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans sold the patent of their light bulb to Edison because they did not secure financial backing. Edison was also inspired by the work of Joseph Swan and William Sayer, who eventually sued him that led to the cancelation of his patents in the United States.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s patent story is more recent. When he was a student at Harvard University, he was hired by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra to create Harvard Connection, which was later renamed ConnectU. Zuckerberg created his own social network thefacebook.com using ideas from the Winklevoss brothers and Narendra. After a long legal battle, Zuckerberg had to pay them $65 million in 2008.
These two stories should be enough to prove to you the importance of knowing about patents and copyrights. Don’t worry if you’re a small-business owner. If you thought of something or creating something, you need to call a small-business lawyer immediately and file the necessary papers to protect your inventions.
Copyright is for writers and artists. Works of fiction, non-fiction, paintings, drawings, sculptures, musical recordings, videos, emails, dance choreography, and computer codes can be copyrighted. You don’t necessarily need to register something you’ve written. You can put a copyright notice on all copies of what you’ve written to prove your claim later on.
However, it is harder to prove to courts that you are the owner of a work of art if you did not register the copyright. This prevents anyone from copying and using your work without permission. A copyright lasts for the duration of the creator’s life plus 70 years. The most common way copyrights are being violated is on the internet. When you use a song for a video then upload that video (with the song in the background) on YouTube for public consumption, that can be considered a copyright infringement. Many artists and producers do not pursue these cases, though.
The trademark protects the logo, image, words, slogan, picture, phrase, and combination of these that make up a brand. If the logo identifies the company, then that should have trademark protection. If you are selling services, then that’s called a service mark. Sometimes, these two are referred to as trade names.
Michael Jordan’s name and image are a brand. That’s why nobody can use his name, logo, and image on the sales of goods. These things uniquely identify him. Seeing that Jumpman logo on anything under than the Jordan brand products is a violation of the trademark rules.
Similar to a copyright, you don’t need to register a trademark. However, it is easier to pursue a case and prove to the court that you used that name or logo to market your business when it has a registration. It’s easy enough to file for trademark protection. To maintain the trademark, you have to file proof every 10 years that you are still using it.
The story about Edison and Zuckerberg is about patents. They invented something, so they need to stop others from using the same invention (just in case they also come up with it). Patents cover machines, processes, algorithms, formulations, new plant varieties, and modifications of existing patents.
Patents last for over 20 years. This means that if you invent something today, you’ll be the only one to use it for the next two decades. If you invented something, the best thing to do is check with a lawyer on how to go about filing a patent for it.
You can keep the secret to your invention and creation as what Coca-Cola and KFC did. No one knows how to make their world-famous soda and fried chicken. Applying for a patent means that they have to release the formula somehow. That will surely leak to the public. Instead, they guard this information with their life. No one can truly say he/she knows how to make Coke.
There is, of course, a downside to doing this. You are allowing others to try to discover how you are making the products. Unless you are absolutely sure no one can figure it out, then you’re safe with not registering it for anything.
Intellectual property rights are tricky. You need someone with expertise to help you navigate this often-confusing world. However, to protect whatever you make, discover, invent, and produce, you need to use the law no matter how inconvenient it is to you.