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Do Intellectual Property Rights Last Forever?

Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) refer to the body of legal protections available to authors and creators for their inventions and works – most notably patents, trademarks, and copyrights – which extend exclusive rights in their favor for limited periods of time as a form of limited monopoly incentive to continue developing and sharing their output with the rest of us. A question I’m often asked by creators is how long, exactly, those various terms of protection last, and whether their heirs can benefit from them. “It depends” I tell them. “And yes, of course!”

Patents are typically protected for statutory periods ranging around the world from between ten to twenty years starting from a prescribed point in time, usually from when the application was filed. Thailand’s Patent Act (No. 2) BE 2535, for example, extends protection to inventions for a period of 20 years from the filing of the application; however, annual renewal fees are payable to the Department of Intellectual Property after the beginning of the fifth year of protection, failing which the patent protection may expire and fall into the public domain. Design patents, by comparison, are protected for a period of 10 years from the date of filing but are not subject to the payment of renewal fees. So-called “Thai petty patents” receive protection for an initial term of six years from the date of filing, which may be renewed twice for additional two-year periods.

Trademarks, by comparison, are capable of indefinite protection for as long as they continue to be used commercially in connection with a particular good or service. Twinings Tea, for example, has used the same logo of capitalized font appearing below a lion crest continuously for the past 236 years, while Bass Ale’s red triangle logo was the first registered trademark ever issued by the British Government, in 1876. The initial term of protection for trademarks in Thailand is for ten years from the date the registration application is filed, which may be renewed for successive ten-year periods indefinitely.

Copyrights are protected for periods of time extending beyond measurable events, typically either the demise of the creator or the publication of the work itself. Literary and musical works, for example, are protected in Thailand for a period of 50 years beyond the death of the author/composer. It should be noted that this falls short of the terms of protection for such works provided in other jurisdictions, including the United States and the United Kingdom, for periods of 70 years post mortem auctoris. The rationale for this quantification was to extend exclusive protection to creators for their works throughout their lifetime, and for two subsequent generations of their progeny.

However, the term of protection for movies and sound recordings in Thailand is merely 50 years from their date of publication. This means, for example, that movies released in 1972 or earlier are already in the public domain in Thailand. Here again, the kingdom’s term of protection falls short in comparison with other jurisdictions. The United States, for example, protects motion pictures and sound recordings for a period of 95 years beyond their original publication. Hong Kong, by comparison (and to further complicate things), protects movies for a period of fifty years beyond the date of the last to die of either the principal director, the author of the screenplay, the author of the dialogue, or the composer of the music specifically created for and used in the film!

The rest of the question is a lot simpler. IPR, is after all, property and may be freely transferred, assigned, or licensed at any point either during the creator’s lifetime or as part of his or her estate. Inventors and creators’ heirs may therefore indeed enjoy the spoils of their ancestors’ intellectual property rights for as long as those rights are still protected.

When in doubt its best to consult with a knowledgeable IP expert to devise and implement a comprehensive strategy to keep track of, and stay atop of, your IP assets.

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