“Intellectual property” is a term that comes up often in online discussions of popular culture, even though hardly anyone who uses it seems to know what it actually means. One person who does know what it means is self-described “geek at law” Will Frank, an honest-to-goodness New York lawyer who specializes in intellectual property (IP) cases. Frank tries to set the record straight with an article entitled “IP-rimer: A Basic Explanation Of Intellectual Property.” Knowing that this is a complicated and potentially off-putting topic, Frank makes every effort to ensure that his primer is accessible to laypeople. He mercifully avoids legalese and peppers his discussion with animated GIFs from Frozen, Community, Game Of Thrones, Back To The Future, and more.
After warning readers that “I am not your attorney,” Frank explains that intellectual property is simply “a thing you own that isn’t a physical thing,” as opposed to real estate or other, tangible possessions. Like the owner of physical property, the owner of intellectual property has certain rights of control, and the government can enforce those rights, but there are limitations. Unlike most of Europe, for instance, America does not generally recognize the so-called “moral right” of artists to control what happens to their creations. Patents on inventions (more or less) expire after 20 years. Ideas themselves cannot be copyrighted, meanwhile, but creative works about those ideas, like songs and plays, can be copyrighted. And even a copyright only lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, unless the “author” is a corporation like, say, Walt Disney, in which case it (currently) lasts 120 years.
And then, there are the thorny issues of what constitutes “fair use” and “free speech.” Will Frank acknowledges that copyrighted and trademarked works are frequently used “as part of political commentary or criticism.” While the courts do have an interest in protecting the rights of creators, Frank says, they are “not amused” by anyone attempting to “use IP law as censorship.” He also tiptoes through the intellectual property minefield of derivative, fan-created works based on such copyright-protected franchises as Star Wars and Babylon 5. At least, Frank is able to offer his readers one bit of comforting news in regards to the use of IP on social media:
In short form, you own what you post on Facebook, and all you’re giving Facebook at any point is the right to post it. Which, because that’s what you want Facebook to do in the first place, is perfectly reasonable.