An Introduction to Intellectual Property

Written by: Andrew Lau

When a person obtains property rights, such as rights in a piece of land or a vehicle, they gain the exclusive right to use, lease, or sell that property, and also the right to prevent others from interfering with it.  Intellectual property (IP) rights are like property rights, except they are rights in intangible things or products of the mind. These rights include the right to make, use, or sell an invention (patent rights), the right to use a name or logo with certain goods and services to set your brand apart from others (trademark rights), and the right to the visual and aesthetic elements of a product (industrial designs). Just like with regular property rights, IP rights can be traded or leased, and an owner of IP rights has the right to exclude others from benefitting from those rights unless authorized to do so.

Below is a brief summary of some of the things that can be protected by IP rights, and how they can be used to benefit you and your business.

Inventions (Patents)

Obtaining a patent for an invention gives the patent owner the exclusive right to make, use, and sell the invention. Patents can be obtained for any “thing” (such as a machine, drug, or chemical compound), method or process for doing something, or an improvement or new use for any of those things, that is new and non-obvious in light of the existing body of knowledge. The telephone, zipper, and Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) oil production are well-known patented technologies.

In Canada, patent protection starts on the day that they are issued from the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) and last for 20 years from the day the patent application was filed, so long as annual maintenance fees are paid.

Patent owners can benefit from their rights by, for example, selling (and preventing others from selling) the protected product/performing services using the protected method, licensing their IP rights in return for royalties, or selling their patent rights.

Branding (Trademarks)

A trademark is used to distinguish goods and services offered by one person from those offered by another. Coca-Cola® is a well-known example of a trademark used to distinguish cola soft drinks made by The Coca-Cola Company from colas sold by other companies. Trademark protection can be obtained for words (i.e. the name “Coca-Cola”), designs (the stylized Coca-Cola logo), and 3-dimensional shapes (the shape of the glass Coca-Cola bottle). Trademark protection can also be obtained for other, non-traditional marks, such as colour, smell, taste, texture, and sound. Trademarks can be extremely valuable – in 2020, Forbes valued the Coca-Cola® brand at $64.4 billion USD.

Registered trademarks do not have a set lifespan, as long as they are renewed every 10 years. However, the trademark system in Canada is “use it or lose it” – the Trademark Office can expunge a registered mark if it has not been used for a period of three years or longer.

Trademark owners can benefit from their rights by using the protected mark with their goods and services, by preventing others from trading off on the goodwill associated with the mark, by licensing others to use the protected mark in return for royalties, or by selling their trademark rights.

Industrial Designs (aka Design Patents)

Industrial designs protect features of shape, configuration, pattern, or ornament in a product and are judged purely from a visual perspective. Unlike patents, industrial designs do not protect any functional aspects of a product, or the methods of making a product. The shape of the Volkswagen Beetle and again, the iconic Coca-Cola® bottle, are examples of industrial designs applied to a car and a bottle.

The lifespan of an industrial design is either 10 years after the design is registered, or 15 years from the filing date, whichever is later. In other words, the lifespan of an industrial design is between 10-15 years. Only one maintenance fee is required for industrial designs, which must be paid by the end of the fifth year after registration of the design.

Industrial design owners can benefit from their rights by making (and preventing others from making) products having the protected design, licensing others to use the protected design in return for royalties, or by selling their industrial design rights.

The process to obtain a patent, trademark registration, or industrial design can be complicated, with rules and pitfalls that can catch applicants by surprise. To increase the likelihood of acquiring a patent, registered trademark, or industrial design, and obtain the best protection possible, it is highly recommended to hire a licensed Patent or Trademark Agent to assist you in drafting your application.

If you would like to get in touch with one of our experienced patent and trademark agents, click here.

To learn more about what a patent agent can do for you, click here.