Intellectual Property

What is Intellectual Property?

The basic notion behind intellectual property is that creators have exclusive rights to their work. These rights ensure that creators of scientific and artistic works can decide how the fruits of their labor are used and who can benefit from them, financially and otherwise. Various intellectual property laws and international treaties govern these rights.

There are many different forms of intellectual property rights, including:

  • Copyright
  • Patents
  • Trademarks
  • Trade dress
  • Industrial design rights

Intellectual property is a complex subject, but the single most important fact is this: If something is protected, you cannot use it without permission. If you do, you are breaking the law.

Intellectual property rights typically do not last forever. Depending on the nature of the work and the rights owner, protections will usually expire after a period of time. The work is then oftentimes released into the public domain and is free for anyone to use.

What follows is by no means a complete discussion of the various forms of intellectual property or the laws that apply. If you are in the slightest doubt as to whether you can use something, you should do your own research before proceeding. If you can’t determine whether the intended usage is legal, it’s best to err on the side of caution and either not use the work in question or obtain permission to do so.

Please also read and understand the Second Life Terms of Service and other relevant documents.

Any work that is deemed to infringe on intellectual property rights will be rejected at the Home and Garden Expo.



This is by far the most common flavor of intellectual property rights. The rights holder has exclusive rights to display, reproduce, sell, and otherwise use the copyrighted work. Copyright can be applied to a wide range of creative and artistic work, but there are limitations: for example, you cannot copyright an idea.

The duration of the copyright protection varies. In the case of individual creators, the most common term is the life of the creator plus 70 years. The expiration dates can also be based on when the work was published or created—this is oftentimes the case with copyrights owned by corporations. Common terms are 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation; the shorter term applies.

Note that these terms are based on US law and that there are exceptions, so you should always check.

The fact that something may be protected doesn’t mean that it is. Some creators will release their work into the public domain or offer free licenses that allow some forms of use. Again, it is your responsibility to verify that your intended use is legal.



Patents usually protect various kinds of inventions, and are granted to new products or processes that address technological problems. While they can be hotly contested in the physical world, it is unlikely that you will infringe on any patents in Second Life.


The purpose of trademarks is to identify the source of products or services. Trademarks usually are logos, names or slogans associated with a brand or a corporation. Needless to say, most corporations are very sensitive about their trademarks and are fully prepared to take legal action to protect them.

Trade dress

The term “trade dress” refers to how a product looks. Some products have distinctive designs that identify the source—the classic Coca-Cola bottle, for example—and the purpose of trade dress protection is to prevent competitors from creating products that mimic the original design.

In other words, you cannot create a product that looks very similar to a design that has trade dress protection, even if you remove or change logos and other brand features.

Industrial design rights

This is similar to trade dress in that it protects a certain design. It does not necessarily have a look and feel that identifies the creator, however. Works of this type may also be protected by copyright.

Common misconceptions

Given how complex this subject matter is, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of confusion surrounding some of the issues. Here are some common misunderstandings:

Copyright must be obtained through registration

No. Copyright is automatic—as soon as a work is stored in a “fixed form” such as a computer file, it is automatically copyrighted.

Not everything can be copyrighted, however. The work must be sufficiently original to qualify for protection. Also, ideas and concepts cannot be copyrighted.

If it doesn’t have a copyright notice or the © symbol, it’s not copyrighted

No. Automatic copyright applies regardless of whether or not a copyright notice or symbol is included.

If it’s on the web, it’s not copyrighted

It most likely is. Unless something is clearly stated as being in the public domain or distributed via a suitable license, you should assume that it is in fact protected by copyright.

The “fair use” doctrine allows me to use it

That depends on how you use the work. Fair use permits some limited uses, such as education, research, journalism, and parody. Commercial use is generally not permitted.

Whether or not the judge will side with you in court depends on a number of factors, including how much of the original work you used and what you used it for. The fact that you thought it was “fair” won’t matter.

I changed the original, so it’s now a derivative work

A derivate work includes elements of existing, protected work, but is sufficiently modified that it qualifies as a protected work in its own right.

This may seem as a convenient loophole, but be aware that the bar is usually pretty high. The modifications must generally be substantive enough that they would in themselves be considered original work and deserving of protection.

It will likely not be a sufficient defense that you changed minor elements, such as the text on a wine bottle label.

Again, the above should not be read as a complete guide to the subject of intellectual property rights—it’s only intended to establish some basic concepts and hopefully clear up some common misunderstandings. You should always make sure that any work you use is legal; violating the rights of others is illegal, unethical and unnecessary.


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