Overview of Intellectual Property Laws

A wide body of federal and state laws protects creative property such as writing, music, drawings, paintings, photography, and films. Collectively, this body of law is called “intellectual property” law, which includes copyright, trademark, and patent laws, each applicable in various situations and each with its own set of technical rules. When obtaining permission to use creative works, you’re concerned primarily with copyright law. However, trademarks, trade secrets, and publicity and privacy rights sometimes come into play when permission to use certain types of works is sought. Below is a summary of the various types of intellectual property laws that are relevant to the permissions process.

  • Copyright. Federal copyright law protects original creative works such as paintings, writing, architecture, movies, software, photos, dance, and music. A work must meet certain minimum requirements to qualify for copyright protection. The length of protection also varies depending on when the work was created or first published.
  • Trademark. Brand names such as Nike and Apple, as well as logos, slogans, and other devices that identify and distinguish products and services, are protected under federal and state trademark laws. Unlike copyrighted works, trademarks receive different degrees of protection depending on numerous variables, including the consumer awareness of the trademark, the type of service and product it identifies, and the geographic area in which the trademark is used.
  • Right of Publicity. patchwork of state laws known as the right of publicity protects the image and name of a person. These laws protect against the unauthorized use of a person’s name or image for commercial purposes—for example, the use of your picture on a box of cereal. The extent of this protection varies from state to state.
  • Trade Secrets. State and federal trade secret laws protect sensitive business information. An example of a trade secret would be a confidential marketing plan for the introduction of a new software product or the secret recipe for a brand of salsa. The extent of trade secret protection depends on whether the information gives the business an advantage over competitors, is kept a secret, and is not known by competitors.
  • Right of Privacy. Although not part of intellectual property laws, state privacy laws preserve the right of all people to be left alone. Invasion of privacy occurs when someone publishes or publicly exploits information about another person’s private affairs. Invasion of privacy laws prevent you from intruding on, exposing private facts about, or falsely portraying someone. The extent of this protection may vary if the subject is a public figure—for example, a celebrity or politician.