What is intellectual property?
Intellectual property is more than an idea—it has to be put into practice. You may have an idea for a song that celebrates traditional East Tennessee culture and is fun to sing at football games, but it doesn’t become intellectual property until you write “Rocky Top.”
Intellectual property can be an invented object, a process, a creative work, or a unique business that provides a product or service.
How is intellectual property protected?
The United States provides for three general types of intellectual property protection:
- A patent protects inventions such as machines, manufactured objects, chemicals, and chemical. Patents generally last 15 to 20 years, depending on the type.
- Copyright protects creative works such as writing, music, art, films, software (including apps), and architecture. For works created by an individual, copyright protection generally lasts 70 years after the creator’s death.
- A trademark protects the words, phrases, and designs that describe the source of a product or service—for example, the name of a business or invention. Trademark protection generally lasts for as long as the mark remains in use.
For more information, see the US Patent and Trademark Office website.
If I think I have an idea, what should I do?
- Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself: will people really buy/want/use/care about this? The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation can help you with this.
- Do some research. Has this been done before? Has this problem already been solved?
- In the words of Gandalf, “Keep it secret. Keep it safe.” Don’t publicly disclose your idea. You can tell your mom, but don’t share on social media, don’t tell your friends, don’t tell the pizza guy. (Especially not the pizza guy.)
- Talk with the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and/or the UT Research Foundation. Come prepared—it’s best not to give away too many details of your idea unless all parties sign a confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement, but be ready to share a broad idea and your plan for bringing it to fruition. The Anderson Center can help move your idea through the validation stage.
- Stay committed and keep making progress. Start writing that song, building that invention, programming that app. It may be a long process, but if you want to make something happen, you need to begin today and commit to even a bit of work on a regular basis.
Why should I protect my intellectual property?
Protecting your intellectual property excludes others from it. No one can take your idea and profit from it. If you want to make money or start your own business, you need to protect your intellectual property.
What if I’m an intern at ORNL or other facility and I develop something?
- If you are employed by the university, the intellectual property belongs to UT. UT owns the intellectual property of all its employees who use UT facilities and resources. (If you receive a W-2 from UT at the end of the year, even as an undergraduate, you’re considered an employee.)
- If you work outside UT but are still getting paid by UT or have funding through UT, the intellectual property belongs to UT. If funding comes from the facility, you are subject to their regulations.
- If you’re being paid by ORNL or other facility as an employee, then the intellectual property belongs to ORNL. If you are being paid by ORNL or other facility through a stipend, then you have options you’ll want to discuss with the UT Research Foundation if you think you have something worth patenting and want to know your options.
- If you are not employed by UT and not working at an outside facility, you own your intellectual property.
All three of these resources work together. Students should start with the Anderson Center and faculty/staff should start with UTRF.
Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation – Located in the Haslam College of Business, the ACEI is open and available to any UTK student – both undergraduate and graduate student. The Anderson Center offers coaching and mentoring to students with ideas. Vol Court, a pitch competition, is a great way to get started. Or just schedule an appointment for a consultation.
UT Research Foundation – As a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, the UTRF promotes commercialization of UT intellectual property and is available to work with both the campus and the community in exploring their idea and help move ideas to the marketplace. They are available to help you navigate the patent process whether you invent something in class, in your garage, or while on an internship. They can even work with you once you are an alumni of UT! The bottom line is, the idea stays yours, they help you take it to market. It’s good to have someone on your side.
Business Law and Trademark Clinic – Located in the College of Law, the Business Law Clinic is open and available to both the campus and the community. The Clinic provides a wide range of services including IP counseling and trademark and copyright registration.
UT Policy on Patents, Copyrights, and Other Intellectual Property – The general campus policy on Intellectual Property is available as a reference, but the resources above will provide greater insight. You’ve made it this far, so take the next step and reach out!