Intellectual-property law

Intellectual-property law, the legal regulations governing an individual’s or an organization’s right to control the use or dissemination of ideas or information. Various systems of legal rules exist that empower persons and organizations to exercise such control. Copyright law confers upon the creators of “original forms of expression” (e.g., books, movies, musical compositions, and works of art) exclusive rights to reproduce, adapt, and publicly perform their creations. Patent law enables the inventors of new products and processes to prevent others from making, using, or selling their inventions. Trademark law empowers the sellers of goods and services to apply distinctive words or symbols to their products and to prevent their competitors from using the same or confusingly similar insignia or phrasing. Finally, trade-secret law prohibits rival companies from making use of wrongfully obtained confidential commercially valuable information (e.g., soft-drink formulas or secret marketing strategies).

The Emergence Of Intellectual-Property Law

Until the middle of the 20th century, copyright, patent, trademark, and trade-secret law commonly were understood to be analogous but distinct. In most countries they were governed by different statutes and administered by disparate institutions, and few controversies involved more than one of these fields. It also was believed that each field advanced different social and economic goals. During the second half of the 20th century, however, the lines between these fields became blurred. Increasingly they were considered to be closely related, and eventually they became known collectively as “intellectual-property law.” Perceptions changed partly as a result of the fields’ seemingly inexorable growth, which frequently caused them to overlap in practice. In the 1970s, for example, copyright law was extended to provide protection to computer software. Later, during the 1980s and ’90s, courts in many countries ruled that software could also be protected through patent law. The result was that the developers of software programs could rely upon either or both fields of law to prevent consumers from copying programs and rivals from selling identical or closely similar programs.

Copyright, patent, trademark, and trade-secret law also have overlapped dramatically in the area of so-called “industrial design,” which involves the creation of objects that are intended to be both useful and aesthetically pleasing. Contemporary culture is replete with examples of such objects—e.g., eyeglass frames, lamps, doorknobs, telephones, kitchen appliances, and automobile bodies. In many countries the work of the creators of these objects is protected by at least three systems of rules: copyright protection for “useful objects” (a variant of ordinary copyright law); design-patent law (a variant of ordinary patent law); and “trade-dress” doctrine (a variant of trademark law). These rules stop short of protecting “functional” features, which are understood to include the shapes of objects when those shapes are determined by the objects’ practical uses. Nevertheless, the rules combine to create strong impediments to the imitation of nonfunctional design features.

The integration of copyright, patent, trademark, and trade-secret law into an increasingly consolidated body of intellectual-property law was reinforced by the emergence in many jurisdictions of additional types of legal protection for ideas and information. One such protection is the “right of publicity,” which was invented by courts in the United States to enable celebrities to prevent others from making commercial use of their images and identities. Similarly, the European Union has extended extensive protections to the creators of electronic databases. Computer chips, the shapes of boat hulls, and folklore also have been covered by intellectual-property protections.

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