COMEC: Intellectual Property

Draft of a Revised Policy

The International Olympic Committee sued to prevent the use of the word "olympic" by hot dog vendors and others wanting to make money during the Atlanta games in 1996. Apple Computer sued MicroSoft to claiming proprietary rights to the look and feel of their Macintosh user interface when MicroSoft introduced Windows. We can be sure that Disney would aggressively defend its rights to the graphic and sound images of Mickey Mouse but have not been known to challenge anyone's use of the term "mickey mouse" when it is used to indicate pointless required activity.

These are three widely used examples of information which is "owned" by individuals, groups or legal entities. In short, they are examples of Intellectual Property. Intellectual property while generally intangible has various forms (data, text, graphics, sound, etc.) and is valued by its owner. Ownership signifies rights to some degree of exclusive use which owners exercise in various ways, such as preventing distribution of trade secrets and licensing others to make limited use of software.

Ownership of information is established under laws which vary from country to country but generally depend upon establishment of the act of creation of the information. Thus authors of books, composers of music, inventors of devices, and creators of software gain intellectual property rights to their works. When the creation was done in the course of work for an employer, then the employer will often gain ownership. When it has occurred in the course of the authorÕs work under a contract, then the terms of the contract will often determine who owns the intellectual property. When creation makes substantial use of another's facilities or services, then the ownership might have to be shared. Prior understandings are important.

Owners of intellectual property can establish their rights under law by having these formally recognized by copyright, trademark or patent. Each confers specific protections, discussed elsewhere in this site. Generally, these rights are established for commercial reasons --- the owner wishes to assure that money earned through the use of their intellectual property accrues in fair measure to them. Even when no commerical gain is sought or intended, intellectual property is protected from copying, distribution, or use without the permission of its owner.

This profit from intellectual property will result in various ways. The semiconductor manufacturers have numerous Trade Secrets concerning how they achieve high circuit densities and high yields in manufacturing. The vendors of software sell use licenses and provide copies of compiled code and documentation to licensees. The authors of books transfer their copyright to publishers via contracts with specific terms for publication, marketing and payment. Purchasers of books may read and re-read the book, let any number of others read the book, and even sell the book again. Composers of music often make similar arrangements with distributors and moreover, receive payments for each performance of their work. Actors usually secure intellectual property rights to their recorded performances, too.

Software, books, music and films are not secrets because their commercial value is realized only by making them available. In contrast, techniques of semiconductor manufacturing require secrecy to assure their commercial value, since their use by others can often be concealed long enough to compromise the owner's advantage. Somewhere in between are trademarks or "signature" symbols whose use may convey commercial value. Such is the case with the words "olympic" and "Java" (Sun Microsystems' language) and with McDonald's golden arches and NBC's three tone chime.

The value of intellectual property generally declines over time. The novelty wears off, the market is saturated, other products and inventions successfully imitate or improve, etc. Thus in our increasingly entrepreneurial world people have become increasingly protective of their intellectual creations. The sad story of ---?--- Carlson, the inventor of Xerography who realized virtually nothing for his genius, is not one many people would willingly repeat.

In all cases, ownership of intellectual property must be respected according to its terms. Violators run serious legal risks

On linked pages you may read more about trade secrets and the specific tools of license, contract, copyright, trademark and patent for securing rights.

Intellectual Property at Rensselaer is defined as: (i) any process, method, discovery, device, plant, composition of matter, or other invention that reasonable appears to qualify for protection under patent law, whether or not actually patentabel; (ii), an original work of authorship which has been fixed in any tangible medium of expression from which it can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device, such as books, journals, software, computer programs, musical works, dramatic works, videos, multimedia products sound recordings, pictorial and graphical works. 


Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute supports the principle that creative labor merits compensation, the fundamental principle of copyright (i.e. the creator of ìunique expressionsî of ideas owns the rights to : reproduction, derivation, public distribution, and public performance or display). Such expressions must be original, fixed in a tangible medium, and an ìexpressionî ( not a ìfactî).  Copyright protection lasts for 50 years beyond the lifetime of the author.  Another intention of copyright protection is ìfair useî, or preserving the right individuals to have access to copyrighted materials for personal, non-commercial, and educational purposes.  Specific restrictions on the content and use of such materials apply of fair use exemptions to copyright. See Fair use Guidelines

  • Copyright provisions apply to the following types of material:

    Books, journal articles, lectures, compositions, scripts, study guides, lab manuals, syllabi, tests, proposals, films, charts, transparencies, video and audio tapes, and cassettes, live broadcasts, software, programmed instructional materials and documentation, and any other materials or works which qualify for protection under the copyright laws of the US 

  • Electronic Materials:

    Because electronic materials are easily reproduced, altered, or shared, respect for such intellectual property is especially important to restate.  Even if there is no clear cut legal statute which applies in a particular case, at Rensselaer, using another personís work is unethical and ethical standards will apply even when the information is left legally unprotected.


Patents are granted to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to ... inventors the exclusive right to their ... discoveries.  The Rensselaer community strongly supports this concept and encourages community inventors to seek either individual or Institute protection for their ideas. Furthermore, citizens must be sure that they do not infringe on the patents of others.  

Patents provide protection for "any new and useful process, machine, manufactyre, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement (thereof)." They grant inventors a limited property right to exclude others from practicing, making, copying, using or selling the claimed invention for 17 years.


Trademarks are generally anything that distinguishes and identifies the origin of a product .  They may be pictures, symbols, words, unique packaging, color combinations, building design, product styles, or overall presentations.  Trademarks can also be given to identification that on its face is not distinctive or unique, but that over time has achieved a secondary meaning that identifies it with a product. The owner of a trademark has exclusive right to use it on the product it was intended to identify and often on related products.  Service-marked receive the same legal protection as trademarks but are meant to distinguish services rather than products. 

Trade Mark Law Materials

Trade Secrets

Fortunes were made by those steel makers who adopted the Bessemer process as soon as it became known. IBM intends to profit from its lead in the production of copper interconnect on semiconductors. Trade secrets convey competitive advantage to their owners and are closely guarded, unlike works whose value is realized by their exposure. A patent is usually the most enforcable way to secure a trade secret --- if the idea is patentable.

On the other hand, the commercial value of a trade secret may be more fully or more conveniently realized by assigning it under license to another. Also, a market may be secured or feedback on an emerging product obtained by revealing trade secrets under a non-disclosure agreement.
 The Trade Secrets Homepage