Intellectual Property for CS Students






Trade secret

Intellectual property (IP) is a diverse legal field, describing four separate but interrelated forms of exclusive rights in information: Copyrights, Patents, Trademarks and Trade Secrets. Each of these four forms of IP has developed through history to address some form of economic concern. This web site seeks to offer the reader a brief overview of IP, and relate each area to the field of Computer Science. Before delving into the specific details of each section, a brief overview of each section is presented below.

One problem with information is that it is costly to produce, but relatively cheap to copy. IP exists to foster the production of information by allowing authors and inventors to recover the cost of information production. Each species of IP rights grants some form of limited monopoly over some aspect of that information.

Copyrights are some of the most basic IP rights that are available. Copyrights apply to original expression that anyone creates. While one cannot at present have a copyright over raw facts, one will have a copyright over any original expression with a "mere modicum of creativity". One result of the broad scope of copyright protection is that it is perforated with several exceptions, which might cause copyright to be viewed as the softest or weakest protection available. When placed in the proper context, however, copyright is a powerful tool for IP protection. Copyright is also the legal device used to keep some important work, such as open source software, available to the public: Gnu General Public License (GPL) is an important example of how copyright protection has been indispensable in the open source movement. [1]

Patents apply to inventions, technological improvements, certain designs, business methods, and some other narrow categories of innovation. They grant a very powerful monopoly—the right to exclude others from using the patented material—for a much shorter time than copyrights. Consequently, the requirements for obtaining a patent are much greater than the requirements for a copyright. Patents can be seen as a bargain between the inventor and the public, in which the inventor discloses the invention in exchange for a twenty-year monopoly on its use. If an invention will not be disclosed to the public through use, the inventor may want to choose trade secret protection, instead of patent protection.

Trademark and trade dress are forms of protection geared at allowing consumers to differentiate between different sources of products and make reliable decisions on the quality of products. This specialized form of protection applies to products in the stream of commerce. It does not affect computer programming as directly as the other three forms of IP, but may be very important to the appearance of graphical user interfaces, video games, and the like.

Trade Secret protection is a pseudo-property right that companies might choose to utilize when the limitations or costs of the other methods are unacceptable for a given application. This form of protection is essentially a series of civil penalties levied against those who act to disclose the trade secret to an unauthorized person.