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Patents, trademarks and copyrights: What are they?

Intellectual property has, in many ways, become the most valuable commodity that anyone can buy or sell. The more our world evolves technologically, the more important information and ideas become -- and the more important it is to understand what legal means are used to protect those things.

Here are some basics everyone today should know:

What are patents all about?

Patents are a federal designation that gives an inventor the sole right to make, use or sell an invention. The actual invention itself doesn't have to exist -- as long as the plans are specific enough to get the patent. Patents can expire and products can end up in the public domain. In addition, people can patent improvements to an invention already in existence. If for example, you build a better mousetrap, you could only patent whatever it is that makes your mousetrap better than the original -- not the whole mousetrap.

How do you get a copyright?

Unlike a patent, getting a copyright is as simple as coming up with an original work in any tangible form, whether it's a poem, a book, a video, a movie, some written code or a song about a stairway to heaven.

You own it as soon as you create it -- which means it is yours to copy, distribute or use. Ideally, however, you might want to think about registering anything special with the Copyright Office -- just in case there's a dispute over who really wrote the music to that song you swear is yours.

So, what's a trademark?

Trademarks are things used to identify products -- like names, colors, that cool sound that you hear at the beginning of every Law & Order episode and anything else that consumers automatically assume is related to your brand. Trademarks can only exist if they're registered with the government, much like patents. They're aggressively defended to prevent consumer confusion -- otherwise, everything you own probably would have some kind of apple on it.

There's naturally a lot more to intellectual property laws -- and litigation can be fierce when there's a dispute. If you're about to go into business for yourself, however, it's wise to learn all that you can about the laws so that you don't end up in an unnecessary lawsuit.

Source: Stanislaus State, "Intellectual Property FAQs," accessed April 06, 2018

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