Illustration by MK

Intellectual property is work which can be protected by patent, copyright, or trademark law. Like the formula for a drug, the design for a machine, software code, a book or work of art, or even a logo.

Recipes and Lawyers

Some innovations stay secret for decades… like the Coca-Cola formula, kept secret since 1891. Or the recipe for your grandma’s amazing meatballs.

But most good ideas don’t stay secret very long. Information travels fast, and there’s lots of smart people in the world.

The business world is cutthroat, and people will ‘reverse-engineer’ (take apart) your product to figure out how it works, or even outright steal the designs for it. They’ll make ‘knock off’ products that are almost the same but that they claim are different (just search ‘building bricks’ on Amazon to see lots of Lego knockoffs).

If you can afford enough lawyers, however, you can use ‘intellectual property’ (IP) law to protect your innovations, giving your business a big advantage. You can file for a patent, trademark, or copyright, and then prevent others from ‘infringing’ on your work and competing with you. Or if you want, you can charge them license fees or royalties to use your invention.

In the U.S., patent protection generally lasts for twenty years. Trademarks (which protect a brand name or logo) can be renewed every ten years. Copyright protection (for creative works) lasts for 70 years after the death of the author.

Intellectual property (IP) law is constantly changing because products keep getting more high tech, which means deciding what’s protectable gets more complicated. So courts and governments keep changing their minds.

If you design an artificial intelligence software program that can taste meatballs and optimize their biochemical composition – be prepared for a long process and to spend lots of money on lawyers to protect it, if that’s even possible.

But if you just want to copyright your grandma’s meatball recipe – that’s easy! Just copyright it. You won’t get protection for all meatball recipes, just her exact recipe, the exact way she wrote it down.

But oh, so tasty.

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