An Overview of Intellectual Property Rights in the Digital Era

Diary of a young lawyer...
3 min readDec 18, 2021

Any product of the human intellect from ideas, creative expressions, inventions, music to medicine, and technologies to any other protectable intangible asset is Intellectual property. Traditionally, it has been divided into four categories: patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets. The patent is an exclusive right granted for an invention and the rest are self-explanatory.

As I’m writing this, Chicago-based tech company Meta alleged that Facebook stole our trademark after the social media firm announced the rebranding.[i] Similarly, German-based health firm “M-sense Migräne” also claims that Facebook has copied their logo for ‘meta’ rebranding.[ii]

Basically, intellectual property law protects creators, inventors, owners and artists and gives them exclusive rights that no one else can copy or reuse their work without their permission.

The complex and fascinating history of intellectual property rights can be traced back to 1421 as per initial official records when an Italian inventor received the world’s first modern patent.[iii] However, if we dig a little deeper, archaeological discoveries push the date as far back as the 6th century BCE when Sybaris in Ancient Greece supposedly granted a year-long exclusivity for bakers to make their delicious cooking invention.[iv]

With the digitalization of the entire planet, new innovations in technology i.e. 3D printing, robotics, Artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), swiftly make the current system of intellectual property rights absurd and ineffective. One can assume, the concept of Intellectual Property rights originated from the protection of cooking recipes and now Intellectual Property Law is coping with issues like 3D printing, Artificial intelligence and many more…

In order to understand the concept of Intellectual Property rights, we need to address several questions:

Can ideas be owned?

In Intellectual Property Law, there is no such recognized ownership of an “idea” But the law does recognize limited rights of ownership in the way that an idea is expressed. I.e. by “first-to-file” copyrights, and trademarks application with respect to your idea or if your idea consequently begins the process of an invention, it can be protected by filing a patent application.

Can ideas be borrowed?

In this Information Age, where all type of information is at our fingertips. It is obvious someone is going to borrow a little bit of it.

Let’s take an example, in almost all academic writing, we explore the work of other professionals. If we misrepresent someone else’s work as our own. Or use it without proper citation or attribution, this is considered plagiarism. Since you all are familiar with online exams I don’t think I need to explain the term plagiarism.

Can ideas be sold?

Starting with the fact, Medical scientist Frederick Banting along with co-inventors, James Collip and Charles Best discovered insulin in 1923. In due course, Banting’s co-inventors, James Collip and Charles Best sold the insulin patent to the University of Toronto for just $1.[v] So, the simple answer to this question is yes.

Need to strengthen Intellectual Property Law to protect rights? Or should the law remain flexible to promote innovation?

Intellectual Property Rights protection has a significant positive impact on innovation in developed countries. Results based on panel datasets from more than 40 countries show that stronger Intellectual Property Rights protection strengthens innovations.[vi] Having said that, the invention of a COVID-19 vaccine cannot be treated in the same way as the invention of a smartphone.

As it is said, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. More than 100 countries backing the proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines will save lives by allowing developing countries to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines.[vii] Yet! Big pharma companies want to have a monopoly on the cure for corona for large profits.[viii]

For Legislators around the world, Intellectual Property rights should be the centre of attention. It requires an evolution-centred approach when it is very difficult to draw a line between patents for lifesaving medicines and patents for life-changing gadgets. Simply, Laws from the 16th century won’t work in today’s world.

References:

[i] https://www.businesstoday.in/latest/top-story/story/meta-company-sues-facebook-for-allegedly-stealing-its-name-311590-2021-11-08

[ii] https://www.republicworld.com/technology-news/social-media-news/german-company-claims-facebook-copied-its-logo-for-meta-rebranding-hits-back-snarkily.html

[iii]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_patent_law#:~:text=Soon%20thereafter%2C%20the%20Republic%20of,marble%20along%20the%20Arno%20River.

[iv] https://philosophy-question.com/library/lecture/read/277995-what-is-the-history-of-intellectual-property-rights

[v] https://www.vox.com/2019/4/3/18293950/why-is-insulin-so-expensive

[vi] https://www.jstor.org/stable/43296295

[vii] https://www.reuters.com/world/us/white-house-wto-members-must-support-intellectual-property-waiver-covid-vaccines-2021-10-21/

[viii] https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/vaccine-monopolies-make-cost-vaccinating-world-against-covid-least-5-times-more

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Diary of a young lawyer...

I'm Abdul Qadeer, Student of Law by day and a writer by night. My talent is words. I am an aspiring writer with a huge passion for writing and researching.