Peter J. Lamont is a business and commercial litigation attorney nationally recognized in a wide variety of highly specialized areas within the kitchen, bath, lighting, construction, and design industries. He routinely represents various national and international companies within the design sector, and has achieved the highest rating in both legal ability and ethical standards as awarded by AVVO (avvo.com).
Intellectual property laws can be challenging for even the most sophisticated business person. This is due to the confusing nature of U.S. intellectual property statutes and the fact that many of the protections often don't follow common sense thinking. Intellectual property issues become even more convoluted when they relate to the lighting design field. Lighting designers create a lighting scheme or design from intangible resources; ideas and thoughts generated from years of experience and training. As a result, designers believe, sometimes erroneously, that their cognitive creations belong to them.
Generally speaking, intellectual property is an area of law that deals with products and creations of human ingenuity and creativity. Also, it is important to note that intellectual property protection is country specific. If a designer has availed herself of the protections afforded under U.S. intellectual property laws, it does not mean that she has been provided protection in any other country. For the purposes of this article, I will discuss only the protections provided under U.S. intellectual property laws.
The three main areas of intellectual property law that commonly arise in the lighting design process are patent law, copyright law, and trademark law. In order to understand how and when intellectual property laws work, it is first critical to understand the basics of each of these common areas.
A properly obtained U.S. patent gives its owners the right to stop others from using or claiming ownership of the particular invention that is the subject of the patent. Patents also have very strict filing requirements. While there are several types, the most commonly issued are utility patents, design patents, and plant patents.
The invention or process used must be new and cannot be a modification of a previous invention. A patent application also must be filed for an invention within one year of the first commercialization or public disclosure of the invention. If a proper application is not filed within this one-year period, the inventor will lose her patent rights to the invention forever.
A utility patent protects the functional aspects of an invention or the process by which it is made. It generally permits its owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention for a period of up to 20 years from the date of the application filing and is subject to the payment of maintenance fees to keep the paperwork current and maintain the active status of the patent. In an average year, approximately 90 percent of all filed patents are utility patents, and the average cost to file one of these is $7,000.
A design patent generally protects the aesthetic or ornamental aspects of an invention. It is issued for a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture and permits its owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the design for a period of 14 years from the date that the patent is granted. Design patents are not subject to the payment of maintenance fees, and the average cost to file one of these is $5,000.
A plant patent is issued for a new and distinct, invented or discovered, asexually reproduced plant. It permits its owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the plant for a period of up to 20 years from the date of patent application filing. The average cost to file one of these patents is $5,500, and they are not subject to the payment of maintenance fees.
Patents protect ideas, but not all ideas can be patented. Most important to you, patent law does not, in general, provide protections for the creations and designs of lighting designers.
Copyright laws protect any original work of authorship and allow the owner of the protected work to prevent others from copying, publicly displaying, making derivative works, or unfairly using the work. Copyrightable works may include architecture, architectural drawings, and lighting designs. But the law protects the tangible work, not the ideas, facts, or conclusions contained in that work. For example, while a particular lighting scheme may be copyrighted, the protections prevent another designer from the unauthorized reproduction of the design itself but do not prevent someone from implementing the design plan contained in that scheme.
Copyright protection attaches to work automatically, meaning that once the design is put to paper, that paper cannot be infringed upon by another. However, this protection only allows its author to file a lawsuit for injunctive relief against an infringer. Basically, the owner of the work can file a lawsuit asking the court to issue an order preventing the infringer from using the protected work. The owner of the work is not entitled to any monetary damages.
An owner of a particular piece of writing can recover monetary damages if she registers her work with the U.S. Copyright office. There is typically a fee of around $350 to do so.