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Intellectual Property Rights

Intellectual Property Rights

What are intellectual property rights?

Intellectual property rights are unique within the realm of property law because they are intangible - they are ideas which belong to you, and you alone. They are not of the realm of the material, but the spirit which moves it. Pretty Zen for a legal concept. But the laws which govern intellectual property are not generally ethereal. They are highly detailed, often very powerful and take plenty of training to become proficient in. Ideas have, of course, been around as long as we have, but the idea of intellectual property came about when ideas became an asset which could be exploited, traded. and stolen. Today, when the realm of ideas and expression impinges on every aspect of our daily life from the car advert on TV to the computer program which monitors our city's water system, intellectual property is more important than ever.

There are various kinds of intellectual property with various laws and applications. How intellectual property rights are created and who they belong to depends on how they are classified. That can lead to some surprising results. For example, in most cases your image is owned under copyright law not by you but by the photographer who snapped you. Of course, that may not matter much to you if you're a drunk and angry rock star, but it's useful to know. Types of intellectual property include the aforementioned copyright and commercial identifiers such as brand names and trademarks. But the most legally powerful intellectual property rights are those attached to patents, which theoretically safeguard and reward the effort involved in inventing things which are useful to society. Patents have been around in one form or another for many hundreds of years and allow the inventor for a limited period of time (usually 20 years) to exclusively enjoy the fruits of their own labor.


An increasing number of ethical issues are attaching themselves to the use of patents, and some argue the overworked US and European patent offices are not adequately addressing them. One of the most pressing dilemmas of recent years has in this area as in others been over developments in genetics. Hundreds of thousands of gene sequences have been patented to the consternation of some observers: a few years ago a British poet called Donna Maclean made a satirical attempt to patent herself. One field of study patent offices are not keen on, though, is that of perpetual motion. Following long and frustrating experience with perpetual motion machines and their often increasingly mad 'inventors', the British patent office now refuses to have any truck with them whatsoever.