What is an Intellectual Property (IP)?

The concept of property is something we all understand. Take real estate. Property is a home, a strip mall, a commercial building or farmland. You can touch it, walk on it and live in it. Pretty simple concept. Property is something real, ergo, real estate.

An intellectual property is different. It usually begins as an idea, takes form and becomes a book, a film, a game, a TV show or something else that people read, watch, play or otherwise recognize. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) defines intellectual property this way:

“Intellectual property relates to items of information or knowledge, which can be incorporated in[to] tangible objects at the same time in an unlimited number of copies at different locations anywhere in the world. The property is not in those copies but in the information or knowledge reflected in them. Intellectual property rights are also characterized by certain limitations, such as limited duration in the case of copyright and patents.”

An IP differs from real property in several key ways. An IP is the product of imagination – a very difficult thing to measure or define. An IP is more easily stolen, pirated or just plain ripped off. In fact, certain countries in the world have no intellectual property agreements across international borders so you can buy a pirated copy of the latest blockbuster on the streets of Beijing today – BEFORE it premiers in U.S. theaters.

Like a house or other property, an intellectual property can be bought and sold. It happens every day. An intellectual property can be sold lock, stock and barrel, or sold off in parts, which usually delivers increased revenue to the owner of an intellectual property.

For example, rights to a copyrighted book can be sold off in many different formats: North American distribution rights, large-print rights, one-time serial rights, sole source rights, audio-book rights, film rights – the owner of a copyright can sell various types of rights as long as the sale doesn’t conflict with rights agreements already in place.

“I Have A Good Idea.”

So does everyone else in the world including my Aunt Tilly. But an idea is NOT an IP. You can’t copyright or trademark an idea. In fact, if some other innovator comes along with the exact, same idea as your brainstorm, there’s nothing you can do about it.

An idea is NOT an intellectual property. An idea becomes an intellectual property when you apply work to it – write it, design it, describe it, code it, or otherwise put some work into that idea. And the more work you put into your idea, the more of an intellectual property you own – an IP that needs protection from theft or infringement.

That protection can take the form of a registered copyright, a patent, a license, a contract or some other defining documentation that describes the parameters of the intellectual property.

That’s why it’s critical to protect your idea as you give it more and more form. You can copyright a book or film. And as the copyright holder, you own that IP, whether it’s a book, video game, movie, webinar, seminar or any other form of media. Without legal protection your intellectual property may be unprotected.

You know the famous smiley face – the one that’s burned into all of our brains? Well, the artist who created that ubiquitous icon never registered the copyright for the image and, over time, that smiley face fell in to the public domain, which means anyone can use it. Even an IP lawyer.

It’s a Jungle Out There

If you’re new to the concept of IP, but you’re in the process of creating one, i.e. you’re writing a book, coding a computer game, building a website or broadcasting a webinar, you need protection early in the development process.

The world wide web, and all the attendant “new media,” have created an insatiable demand for intellectual properties. Today, an IP – a good one – is almost like currency. It can be traded, bought and sold, used to build credibility and trust and generate revenue. And if it’s really good, that IP can generate a whole lot of revenue.

However, if you don’t know the consequences of selling your copyright to a publisher, if you don’t understand the difference between a trademark and a signature mark, if you’re unfamiliar with one-time serial rights, you may quickly discover that your IP is no longer your IP.

Intellectual property law is a complex specialty, one few attorneys practice. It involves a variety of media. It entails means of distribution, it crosses international boundaries in this global economy, it engages dealers, publishers, distributors and even rack-jobbers. And if you’re engaged in the creative process, chances are you may not even be aware of the value of your IP.

Further, you may not fully understand the risks associated with intellectual properties – especially across international boundaries.

Seek Legal Advice Early

Remember, an idea is just an idea. However, once you’ve developed that idea and put work into it, giving the idea substance, it needs to be protected with a copyright, patent or other legal document. You own something. But without legal protection, you can very quickly lose that product of imagination forever. Or, end up in court for years battling a deep-pockets IP publisher who’s in no rush to settle.

As soon as you begin shaping your idea into an IP, seek legal counsel from an experienced legal firm – a law firm that has extensive experience in IP management, IP development and, most importantly, intellectual property protection.

The earlier you obtain legal counsel during the development phase, the safer you and your IP are. Don’t take chances. This is your concept, your vision, your dream.

Consult with an intellectual property lawyer and protect what’s rightfully yours.

Protect your future. That IP may be the next big thing, and that would be a terrible thing to lose.

Just ask Harvey Ball. He created the Smiley Face as a freelance artist. He gave that million-dollar IP away.