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What is Intellectual Property (IP)?

General IP: Intellectual Property (IP) is the catch-all term for non-physical but identifiable property. Think of the text of a book: it can be presented in various languages, or different physical forms, but the underlying content remains the same. This underlying content is the intellectual property. In the USA, there are 3 main designations for IP protection that individuals can utilize, these are: Copyright, Trademark and Patent.

Trademarks v Patents v Copyright: Trademarks, Patents & Copyrights all cover different types of IP, and have different goals.

  • Trademarks can be logos or phrases, and are generally intended to help an individual tell one brand or corporate entity from another. They must be federally registered and renewed, and expire if they are not renewed. For example, the Cornell seal is trademarked by Cornell, and cannot be used without Cornell’s permission
  • Patents can be for mechanical processes or formulas, and are generally intended to limit production to the patent holder. They must be federally registered and renewed, and expire after time. For example, a medication can be patented, and can then only be produced with permission of the patent holder.
  • Copyright can be on any creative expression in a fixed medium. They do not need to be federally registered or renewed. For example, the copyright to this website belongs to Cornell (but we are licensing it under a CC-BY-ShareAlike )

For an all-inclusive example, let’s imagine a bottle of Coca-Cola. The Coca-Cola Corp owns the trademark to the name Coca-Cola, as well as the trademark on the bottle shape, and the graphic representation of their name. These are all things that help distinguish them from other cola brands and define their individual product. Coca-Cola also owns the patent on their formula. This means that no other corporation is allowed to make their cola in quite the same way Coca-Cola makes theirs. Coca-Cola also owns the copyright on their ads and jingles, and the creative copy on their bottles. Unless your use meets a Fair Use standard, you are not allowed to use their copy without receiving their permission!

Copyright Concepts

Goals of Copyright: The stated goal of US copyright law is to promote progress by securing time-limited exclusive rights for creators. (paraphrased from Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the US Constitution)

Exclusive Rights of Creators: Right now, in the USA, Copyright is automatic for content in a fixed form. If you write a book or draw a picture, those things are under copyright, and you are entitled to six exclusive rights about them:

  • The right to reproduce
  • The right to create derivative works (eg: adapting a book into a play)
  • The right to distribute copies, or transfer ownership of the work
  • The right to perform the work publicly
  • The right to display the work publicly
  • The right to perform the work publicly via digital audio transmission (if sound recording)

You are not required to register your copyright with the Copyright Office. You are not required to include a copyright statement. If you anticipate that your work will be a high-value project, or that there may be a copyright dispute in the future, you can register with the Copyright Office.

There are limitations on these exclusive rights, the most common of which are Fair Use and Reproduction by Libraries and Archives (for an exhaustive list, see: US Code, Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 107-112.

Things that cannot be copyrighted: Facts cannot be copyrighted, which means that things like basic math, recipes, alphabets, grammatical tropes (eg: “I before e, except after c”) and recipes (the list of ingredients and steps themselves) cannot be copyrighted.

On the other side, ideas cannot be copyrighted either. Only creative media in a fixed form is eligible for copyright.

Information contained on this website is educational in nature and is not to be construed as legal advice.

If you seek legal advice, please contact the Office of General Counsel.

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Cornell University Library's Copyright Services LibGuide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Please attribute Cornell University in any reuse.