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Intellectual Property

I am not an intellectual property (copyrights, patents, and trademarks) expert but I have been working with issues of intellectual property for over 30 years. Below is a summary of what I have learned.

A "Copyright" protects the expression of an idea. This includes text, images, videos, and, music. This means people cannot copy the exact form of the published work but they can copy the ideas behind it (i.e. they could repeat what you have done, rewrite the document and publish it without violating copyright).

A "Patent" protects "ideas" and "processes". Folks often confuse patents and copyright but they are very different. A patent typically includes a "flow chart" that describes the process. Someone cannot then copy your patented idea or process without your permission. Patents have to be applied for, are expensive and time consuming to obtain, and are difficult to enforce. However, some folks make lots of money with them.

A "Trademark" is a name or "mark" (image) that represents a company or product. "IBM", the Apple Logo, the Toyota name and logo are examples of trademarks. Trademarks are registered within each country and within a given type of industry (i.e. you can have an "Apple Computer" separate from a "Macintosh Apple").

"Trade secrets" are secrets that are kept within an organization. Organizations can fire you for sharing trade secrets but to sue you, they need to have you sign a contract that spells out their policy. Trade secrets then fall under contract law or "tort" law.


Anything that is "published" is automatically copyrighted under the international Berne Convention. The basic rule is that if you public something in print or electronic form (this includes putting it on the web) then it is protected by copyright for up to 50 years after the authors death. Photos and movies are for 25 years after the author's death ( This means to "copy" someone else's work, you need to get their permission. This does not include short quotations but does apply to any images from the Web.

Note that this also means anything you put up no the web (including your photos) is also automatically copyrighted and others should not copy them without your permission.

If you created the document, then you are the author and own the copyright. If you were paid by someone to create the document then you are still the author but the copyright moves to the organization unless something else was worked out in a contract.

In all cases, you need to provide an appropriate citation (next to the item) for the source of the material or you will be guilty of plagiarism (this is separate from copyright).


You can use US government sources without gaining permission.

You can use copyrighted material for up to 1 term for educational purposes (i.e. you can copy material for presentations and papers but don't publish the material).

Again, in all cases, you have to cite the sources.