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Ethics Resources for IPRO Teams: Intellectual Property

This is a resource guide for IPRO teams interested in looking at the ethical issues inherent in their project topics.

Intellectual Property

Intellectual property refers to patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets, all of which are legal means meant to protect unique ideas, inventions, and other non-tangible property.  Ethical issues regarding intellectual property frequently arise in IPRO projects concerning how group member's contributions should be measured and rewarded if the research project results in a patent, how businesses, advisors, and other institutions may have a claim to intellectual property resulting from projects they sponsor, and intellectual property and confidentiality agreements companies may ask students to sign to protect the intellectual property rights of a company. 

Approaches to intellectual property may differ according to whether the results of an IPRO project can be considered as a private, potentially marketable commodity or a common good.  For example, say a pharmaceutical company has created a vaccine for HIV/AIDS.  The company has a right to recoup the money they spent in developing the vaccine, and so may chose to protect the new vaccine with a patent.  However, should the knowledge of how to make this vaccine become common knowledge, it could become more widely available to at-risk populations in Africa and elsewhere than if only one company held the patent to make and distribute the vaccine.  How should the rights of the pharmaceutical company be weighed against the common good of HIV/AIDS patients who may not be able to afford the drug?

For more information about intellectual property, please visit the following websites and other publications.


Patents grant inventors exclusive rights over their works, and usually apply to inventions (such as machines), processes (such as a way to synthesize a chemical) and substances (such as a new form of plastic). The patent holder has the right to determine who may produce, use, or sell his invention, process, or substance.

For a short introduction to patents and other forms of legal protections for intellectual property, see Owning Science and Technical Information by Vivian Weil and Jack Snapper, which is available at the Ethics Center Library.

What is a Patent?


A trademark is a mark, typically stamped on a product, to indicate its producer.  The producer has control only over the mark, not over any features of the product. Examples of a trademark are the Nike symbol and the McDonald's golden arches.

What is a Trademark?


Copyrights protect ways of expressing ideas. As the name suggests, the copyright holder has a right to determine who may copy his words.  The right does not extend to who may discuss the ideas expressed by those words.  For instance, Einstein may copyright his essay on the theory of relativity, but he may not prevent others from researching his theory or presenting it in their own words. In recent years, copyright has been extended to cover not only books and journal articles, but also pictures, films, music, computer programs, and design elements of products.  

What is Copyright?

Trade Secrets

Trade Secret is information a firm reserves for its exclusive use, or for use by other firms to which it grants a license, such as the recipe for Coca-Cola. Trade secrets share some similarities with patents, but they differ in one meaningful way. Patents are only granted for a set length of time (currently 17 years), while trade secrets can be kept indefinitely. Trade secrets are also governed by state laws, unlike patents which are issued by the federal government, and must meet much less strict guidelines than patents, which require strict standards of novelty and unobviousness, and must represent a genuine advance in a particular field. A trade secret qualifies as a trade secret as long as the information has some degree of novelty, cannot be readily discovered by public introspection, and most importantly, is actively protected from disclosure by the firm.  Finally, trade secrets are not legally protected in the same way as patents.  A trade secret cannot be used if it is acquired by improper means (espionage, a former employer leaking the secret), but if another firm independently discovers the secret, they can freely use the information without having to pay a licensing fee, and cannot be legally prevented from using it. (Frederick, R.E. "Trade Secrets" Encyclopedia of Business Ethics, Blackwell, 1997.)

Example Case Studies

Below are a handful of case studies exploring questions of intellectual property.  

Books & Anthologies


Even More Information

The Technology Transfer Office at IIT exists to answer many of your questions about intellectual property laws, procedures, and IIT policy regarding the intellectual property rights of IIT students, faculty and staff. 

Problems with Patents

TED Talks has produced a series of talks entitled Six Talks about Problems with Patents that discusses issues such as how patents can help inflate the cost of life-saving drugs,  hinder as well as help creativity, and some potential mechanisms and new ways of approaching intellectual property law that could help solve some of these issues. 


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Kelly Laas
Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions
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Subjects: Ethics

Need More Information?

Librarian Charles Uth has put together an excellent guide on Intellectual Property, including information on searching for patents. 

IP Watch Dog is blog focusing on the business, policy and substance of patents and other forms of intellectual property, such as copyrights and trademarks.

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