Discuss the legal protections related to copyright, trade secrecy, and patents. Include an example for each where legal protection has been enforced.

Expert Answers
Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the United States, all of these areas of protection are under federal law because this is what the United States Constitution provides for, as one of the responsibilities of Congress under Article I.  All three are considered what is called intellectual property, which essentially means the product of one's mind.  I am not acquainted with how other countries handle intellectual property, so I will focus only on United States law. 

Copyright protections are afforded to creative efforts, such as writing, music, art, photography, and sculpture.  As a general matter, they provide the creator of the work protection against its use by others without permission and without compensation. The remedies include injunctive relief, for example, a cease and desist order, and monetary relief to compensate for the unlawful use. There are some exceptions to this, for example, the "fair use" doctrine, which allows teachers like me to copy and distribute a small portion of a work to my students without a problem or for a critic to quote a few lines of a novel in a book review. 

One instance in which copyright protection is being litigated over as we speak is the song "Happy Birthday to You," which was originally written in 1893 by two sisters as a greeting song for their kindergarten class, with somewhat different words. A company purchased the song and now makes a few million a year for its use, but a suit has been filed in federal court arguing that the song should now be in the public domain.  We will all have to await resolution of that issue.  

Another case involving music was the case in which George Harrison's song, "My Sweet Lord" ran afoul of an earlier pop hit called "He's So Fine," sung by the Chiffons. Harrison was found liable for "subconscious plagiarism" and had to pay over a million dollars to the holder of the copyright. 

Trade secrets are no laughing matter, and people are incarcerated for violating the law on this.  A trade secret is owned by a company, just as it might own a copyright or patent, and as long as the company has made clear it is a secret, has taken reasonable steps to ensure its secrecy, and has the prospect of reaping some economic advantage from it, the secret is protected under the law. The consequences can be fines and prison.  This is a form of theft. 

In May of this year, two Chinese engineers were arrested and indicted for having stolen trade secrets for the benefit of China.  They were also indicted for industrial espionage, since their alleged intent was on behalf of a foreign nation.  If they had stolen solely for economic reasons, for their own reward or for the benefit of some private company, there would not have been this additional count.  While the resolution of these indictments are as yet unknown, it seems that the government has a strong case, and these defendants are likely to be found guilty. 

Patents are registered with the federal government for protection of the invention of products and processes that are original. The protection is not forever, but for as long as it lasts, it protects from others using a protected process or manufacturing a protected product without permission and compensation. This is generally a civil matter, not a criminal one, but it can result in cease and desist orders and monetary awards. Since reverse engineering has become increasingly sophisticated, patent protection is more important than ever before. 

Probably some of the most famous cases in recent history were the lawsuits between Apple and Samsung, in which Apple alleged that Samsung had violated its iPhone software patents in its own smartphone products. Samsung countersued. When the dust had settled, Apple was mostly the victor, although the jury in one case did not find that all of the allegations against Samsung would hold up.  Apple was awarded nearly a billion in one case and a mere $119.6 million in another. 

The legal protection of intellectual property is what drives civilization, really. If we do not protect people's creative efforts and inventions, what motivation do they have to create and invent? We should all remind ourselves of this when we are tempted to make an illegal copy of a movie, take credit for something that is not ours, or download music illegally. 

jprice1980 | Student

Anytime you are dealing with copyright there are laws which govern copyright of electronic material especially and printed material.  Now trade secrecy has laws as well because we buy and sell things all the time and there are trade laws when you are bargaining for copyright material and if the trade secrecy laws are not followed this can be a real problem and there could be fines when these laws are broken.

Once a patent is put on a product or an idea the inventor reserves the right to that particular idea, and as soon as someone comes up with the idea which may be similar to yours they most give credit where credit is due.