IP Life Expectancy

The Unites States of America – it’s often referred to as “the land of opportunity.” The oppressed come seeking freedoms unavailable in many countries, and the ambitious come seeking fortune and fame. This has been our country’s story, in fits and starts of enthusiasm, since the beginning.

Despite all that apparent upside, in recent years the life expectancy at birth of a USA resident has not improved at the same pace as our peer nations. The pandemic didn’t help, as the increased USA mortality rate due to COVID-19 widened the life expectancy gap that existed before the pandemic.

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How can this be, when the USA outspends its peers on healthcare and has (as some claim) the best healthcare in the world? Some suggest that it is because the USA healthcare system is structured to take care of very sick people. The USA healthcare system – led no doubt by its current big spenders, the aging Baby Boomer generation born between 1946 and 1964 – has traditionally emphasized acute care and rescue care rather than investing and enabling general healthcare promotion and disease prevention.

We know that no matter how you frame the problem or the solutions, there are no quick fixes or simple answers to this dilemma. Life expectancy in the USA is still good compared to the entire world, but it certainly could be better.

As of April 2023, the average life expectancy at birth of a USA resident was 76.4 years. When you stop to think about it, that’s actually a very long lifetime.

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How does a life expectancy of 76.4 years compare to the life expectancy of our various intellectual property tools of patents, trade secrets, trademarks and copyrights?

Patents

Patents protect new and nonobvious ideas. A U.S. utility patent has a term of 20 years from its filing date. A U.S. design patent has a term of 15 years from its issue date.

Patents are not renewable. A patent is granted for a one-and-done term. A patent’s lifetime is limited by design to encourage continued innovation and creativity, and it works that way (although getting a patent can be slow, ponderous and expensive at times).

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets also protect ideas, but don’t have to satisfy any statutory standards to qualify for protection. A trade secret is any information that has value from being secret.

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There is no “term” or lifetime established for trade secret protection. In other words, trade secret protection can last forever, as long as the requisite confidentiality is maintained. Examples of this are Coca-Cola’s syrup formula, KFC’s fried chicken recipe of 11 herbs and spices, and the criteria for a book’s qualification on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Trademarks

Our trademark laws are designed to prevent consumer confusion in the marketplace. Trademark rights in the USA arise from use of a mark. A trademark can be registered, but it doesn’t have to be (although federal registration provides significant advantages to the mark’s owner).

Trademark registration lasts for 10 years, but that registration is renewable in 10-year increments as long as that trademark is in use. Examples of trademarks with long U.S. lifetimes include STELLA ARTROIS (for beer; since 1926), TWININGS (for tea; since 1909), and LEVI’S (for jeans; since 1927).

Copyrights

Copyright protects the expression of an idea, and while copyright rights spring into existence on creation of the copyrighted work, registration is required for enforcement purposes.

Copyright protection lasts for a long time. Works created after 1977 are protected for at least the life of the author plus 70 years. For certain types of works (such as those made by an employee), protection may be 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter. Works created before 1978 may be subject to different terms.

While patent terms of 15 or 20 years may seem like long times generally, they are actually the shortest established life expectancy for any form of intellectual property.

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