Understanding How Intellectual Property Laws Protect Computer Programs

Law Blog

The Constitution gives Congress the responsibility of governing intellectual property law. Unfortunately, the Constitution was drafted long before the idea of a computer program was even remotely conceivable. As a result, understanding how intellectual property law protects the creation and marketing of computer programs can be challenging.

Understanding the Basics of Intellectual Property Law

"Intellectual property" is an area of law that gives people certain rights and legal protections for their inventions and creations. Intellectual property law consists of three predominate areas: trademark, copyright, and patent. These three areas protect specific creations and do not provide interchangeable protections.

  • Patent law protects inventions that have functional purposes and technical processes.
  • Trademark law protects words or symbols that are used to identify the source of a product or service, such as brand names and logos. 
  • Copyright law protects creative works of authorship, such as musical lyrics, novels, paintings, and photographs. 

Patent Protection

For an invention to be eligible for patent protection, it must serve a useful purpose, be unique, and not obvious. Computer programs are eligible for patent protection if they meet this criteria.

Trademark Protection

When it comes to marketing the computer software, trademark law becomes very important. The name of the computer program and any logos or slogans used are eligible for trademark protection.

Copyright Protection

One of the most confusing aspects of computer software intellectual property protection lies in federal copyright law. A "computer program" is a series of steps that tell a computer what to do; computer programmers write these instructions by using a special language that the computer can understand, like HTML or javascript or PHP. Because this program is a written piece that is permanent and creative, it is covered by copyright law. Interestingly enough, because it is written, it is classified as a literary work. This copyright protection not only prohibits other programmers from using some or all of the code in other creations, but also prohibits consumers from "burning" the code onto another CD. 

Copyright protection gets even more complicated when the final creation is a video game. The characters portrayed in a video or computer game are protected under copyright law as long as the characters are eligible for copyright protection beyond the game play. This is a confusing concept at first, but at the core of copyright protection is the requirement that the work is "fixed in a tangible medium of expression"; in other words, use of a character in a video game alone is potentially unprotected because game play is not "fixed." Furthermore, the protection that encompasses the written computer program code behind the character does not extend beyond the code to the visual manifestation of the character. The character is protected, however, if prototypes are sketched beforehand, or the character is taken from a movie character. 

If you have more questions about whether or not your current computer project should be protected under law, contact a local attorney from a firm like Lingbeck Law Office.


9 December 2014

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