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Using Design Patents and Copyrights To Protect Nature Art

Nature art is automatically protected by copyright when you create it. But if you register it, you get legal benefits. You can better defend your art if someone copies or uses it without permission. Small business owners, entrepreneurs, and artists can protect their nature art through copyright registration and patent protection.

When you create art or design products based on natural forms and images, protecting them from imitators presents a problem. Works incorporating natural forms must meet specific statutory requirements to receive the full protections possible under copyright and patent law.

Brief Overview of Intellectual Property

Knowing your intellectual property (IP) rights is crucial for a startup company or artist. Intellectual property protection gives creators exclusive rights over their creations. There are four forms of intellectual property: patents, trademarks, trade secrets, and copyrights. These four types of intellectual property protect different forms of intangible property. Intangible property includes your company name, logo, or new product. Obtaining IP protection provides legal protection against others profiting off your art.

What Is Nature Art?

Nature art includes artwork that uses natural landscapes and wildlife. Nature art can receive intellectual property protection through copyright and design patents.

Nature: The Public's Domain

Copyrights and design patents have some limitations when applied to works based on nature art. Natural forms and images are part of the public domain, meaning no person can own a copyright or a patent. Keeping natural objects in the public domain ensures that nature remains open to everyone. This benefits the public by fostering expression and increasing the number of creative works that enter the market. No one may copyright or place design patents on nature.

But the creator of an artistic or useful expression involving nature may get a copyright or design patent on their work.

What Copyright Law Can and Can't Do for Nature Art

Copyrights protect original works of art for the life of the author plus 70 years. The U.S. Copyright Office handles the copyright registration process. Copyright law will not give an artist the exclusive right to natural shapes and images depicted in the work.

The more a representation of a natural object incorporates the artist's creative expression, the better the chances of getting copyright protection on that representation.

Here are two examples:

  1. An artist draws a faithful reproduction of a flower. They can't prevent another artist from creating a very similar drawing of a flower since the flower belongs in the public domain. However, if the artist creates a unique, stylized picture of the flower, they can get a copyright on that image.
  2. An artist cannot copyright the pattern of a zebra's stripes. They can still make a special cartoon picture of a zebra. By using copyright law, they can stop other artists from using that same cartoon. Drawing the zebra in a special way added creative expression to a natural image. Now, they can get a copyright over their work.

Copyright law will prevent anyone else from displaying, selling, licensing, or reproducing the artist's work.

Patent Basics

Patents protect inventions that are novel, non-obvious, and have utility. The invention must be non-obvious to a person with ordinary skill in the subject matter. There are three types of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents.

Utility patents protect compositions of matter, machines, and processes. Plant patents protect new varieties and creations of plants.

Design patents protect the appearance of a unique and ornamental design. For example, a product or configuration's shape and surface ornamentation.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office handles patent applications.

Design Patent Protection for Nature Art

Many products in the marketplace incorporate natural images and shapes in some way. Creators of these products may be able to use design patents to prevent competitors from using the same design on their products. Yet, patents are not granted for abstract ideas. Your nature art must be tangible and a definitive expression of your creative work.

Pictures of nature may not be eligible for copyright protection. This is because they look too much like real things in nature. But they could qualify for a design patent.

Getting a design patent can cost a lot of money and take a long time. But it gives powerful protection for artwork that shows natural shapes and has a purpose. The design must go with a functional product to get a patent.

Patent Applications

The creator must submit a patent application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) within one year of the design's first use or disclosure.

There are two application options when filing for a design patent. You can file a non-provisional patent application or a provisional patent application. A provisional patent application is the most cost-effective option. It provides a filing date and allows the use of the term "patent pending." The phrase "patent pending" gives the inventor more time to develop their creation. In patent applications, the specification is a detailed written description of your claimed invention explaining its novel features.

Patent Process

A patent examiner will conduct a prior art search during the patent process. This search determines if the claimed design is novel and non-obvious. This patent search involves reviewing existing patents to see if it is like other registered patents. Patent owners must pay maintenance fees to keep their patent rights enforced. The period of time the patent protection lasts varies depending on the type of patent granted.

Design Patent Length of Protection

Design patent protections last 15 years if filed after May 13, 2015. For applications prior to May 13, 2015, the holder only gets 14 years of protection.

International Design Patent Protection

If you want to seek international intellectual property protection, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) can help with these applications.

Hiring an Experienced Intellectual Property Attorney

Suppose you want to copyright or patent your artwork or need to take legal action on an infringement case. Contact a copyright or patent attorney today to learn more.

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