Ethics Vs Law: Intellectual Property Explained

Patents have a vast history in the United States. From Eli Whitney and his cotton gin (yes, it was patented!) to Samuel Colt and the first ever revolver, patents have been protecting the ideas and genius of individuals for centuries. The first patent law was used over 228 years ago, though times have certainly changed. With the introduction of the Internet and the easy transfer and communication of information, intellectual property issues are more common than ever.

The rules that distinguish an idea or product from a very similar version are tricky to manage when multiple companies and individuals are trying to obtain a patent for themselves. Take the dispute between Shannon McLaughlin, a small business owner based in South Africa, and Australian supermarket chain Woolworths: after designing a baby carrier she named the Ubuntu Baba baby carrier nearly four years previously, McLaughlin was shocked to discover that the supermarket giant had begun selling near-exact copies of her carriers in their stores. She had not yet patented it.

Though the products were not completely identical (and was technically, legally unprotected), Woolworths immediately pulled the baby carrier from its shelves. Dr. Owen Dean, an intellectual property law consultant, thinks that the difference between what is legal and what is ethical is truly what matters in this and many intellectual property issues today. He stresses two main aspects of proving copyright infringement. First, you must copyright your invention; second — and more difficult — you must prove that the imitation was knowingly stolen it.

“If you make a drawing, for instance the design for a carrier for children, once you have put pen to paper and you have a drawing of that article you have copyright in that drawing,” he said. “What you do have to show is that not only it’s your own work but that the other party…. has actually copied what you have produced, that they haven’t arrived at it independently.”

If a competitor steals your idea and you can’t prove it, you’ve got an ethical issue; if it’s not patented, you have no legal ground to stand on. Fortunately, Woolworths is taking responsibility for their actions, whether they were intentional or not.

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