At an intense moment in Spider-Man, tough tabloid editor J. Jonah Jameson grabs the phone and barks the order, "Call the Patent Office and get me a copyright on 'Green Goblin.' I want a quarter anytime anybody says that!" Although a few seconds later Jameson demonstrates that he knows the difference between slander and libel, he clearly doesn't know a copyright from a trademark.
Jameson's would-be comic comment evokes only a mirthless laugh from intellectual property attorneys. In a world in which intellectual property has become increasingly more important, sparked especially by the crackling debate over copyright and trademark protection on the Internet, it serves as a reminder of how even the most basic understanding of intellectual property rights still eludes most people.
Ironically, that includes writers: not just fictitious tabloid editors but real-life people who write movies and newspapersópeople for whom words are a livelihood, and whose careers would seem to depend upon an understanding of terms like "copyright" and "trademark." Not a week goes by without a news story in which the words and concepts "copyright" and "trademark" get hopelessly confused.
It's time for laypeopleówriters and businesspeople alikeóto get a basic idea of what these terms mean. Not in all their legalistic complexity, just in common everyday terms. For starters, let's parse out Mr. Jameson's order, and see just how many common misunderstandings about intellectual property are reflected in his two-sentence speech.
"Call the Patent Office Ö" That would be the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which has two primary functions: to issue patents and to register trademarks. A patent is the exclusive right to make and use an original invention or process for a limited period of time. A trademark is a word, phrase, or symbol used to identify a particular product or service in commerce. OK so far?
"Ö get me a copyright on 'Green Goblin.'" Now we run into problemsósix of them, to be exact, in this one phrase.
First, calling the Patent Office doesn't "get" you anything. You have to file an application if you want to obtain either a patent or a trademark registration.
Second, you don't "get" a copyright by calling anybody. You get a copyright by creating an original work and fixing it in a tangible medium. Now don't worry about that language; it just means that you've recorded the work somehow. You wrote a poem or an article on paper or saved it to a disk drive; you...