Who owns the intellectual property


Sebastian Deterding, Philipp Otto Update: Valie Djordjevic

Copyrights, patents, trademarks in the German legal system

"Intellectual property": This includes copyright, trademark law and patent law. But what is what and how do these areas of law differ?

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They are called intangible goods and are strange things: ideas, images, words, concepts that nobody can hold in their hands and that can still belong to a person. That is why they are also referred to as "intellectual property". The legislature also largely treats them as such: whether a novel, a newly invented toaster or the logo of a company, they are all viewed as property within the meaning of Article 14 of the Basic Law and can be inherited. However, like all other property, property rights for intellectual property are restricted for the common good. For example, copyright protection ends 70 years after the author's death, while patent protection usually ends 20 years after the date of application.

More precisely, "intellectual property" is understood to mean copyright and related rights, patent law, trademark law, and registered design law. These rights can be divided into two broad groups: Trademark, patent and design rights are register rights. That means you have to register them in order for them to be valid. On the other hand, copyright arises automatically and protects the author in relation to his work from the time it comes into being.


Copyright protects intellectual works such as texts, pieces of music, images, films or software. It not only serves a growing and fair economy, but also promotes culture. However, there can only be a flourishing cultural landscape - according to the logic of copyright law - if the cultural workers are appropriately recognized and remunerated. This is exactly what copyright law ensures: Only the author can decide who to allow the use of his works (voluntarily or for money).

At the same time, copyright protects the personality of the creator and binds the protected work closely to its creator. This means that he can never transfer all rights to his work to others (he always remains the author), but only rights of use. The duration of the protection is also tied to the author: it expires 70 years after his death. In between, protection passes to the heirs. The prerequisite for all of this is of course that the work is a personal spiritual creation and shows a certain originality, the so-called "height of creation".

Patent law

It is quite easy to distinguish industrial intellectual property rights according to what they want to protect and achieve. Similar to copyright law, patent law aims to promote new (technical) ideas - inventions - and for this purpose grants the inventor the right to exclusively exploit his new idea, into which he has invested time and work, for 20 years.

Anyone who has an invention patented must describe it in a comprehensible manner in the patent application. This ensures that the idea can also be used by others after the protection period has expired (or the inventor's death). The prerequisite for the protection of a patent is that it is a real innovation (the wheel can no longer be patented), that it is not a chance discovery that could happen to anyone, and that the invention actually promises commercial use.

Trademark law

Trademark law, on the other hand, is not interested in the creator of a trademark. A brand is used so that customers can easily recognize who made a certain product and thus know what quality they can expect from the product.

Trademark law protects customers from being misled by plagiarists and manufacturers from losing revenue in case of doubt through such plagiarists. Accordingly, a trademark can in principle be protected for an unlimited period of time as long as the product exists. The application for protection can be renewed every ten years. The prerequisite for this is that the trademark is actually an unmistakable and special label.