Fireworks and Intellectual Property

It’s almost time for 4th of July! Time for hot dogs, sprinklers, and of course, fireworks. 

Where to see 4th of July firework displays in the Iowa City area

The first fireworks were invented in China during the Song dynasty (960-1279) where firework makers were respected for their skill in creating beautiful displays. The fireworks you will see this weekend are much the same s they were during the Song dynasty, consisting of a fuse, an explosive material, and inclusions to create special effects. Fireworks are actually a great way to talk about intellectual property! 

Now wait right there I know you were about to click away but I promise this is interesting.

What is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property is any creative work, from a new chemical process to the lyrics to a song. If you are the creator of a piece of intellectual property it may be in your best interest to register it with the appropriate government agency (please consult a lawyer for more information on how to do this, the Lichtenberger Engineering Library is not a legal entity nor is anyone on staff a lawyer). 

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is a government agency tasked with maintaining intellectual property rights. They manage three main areas of intellectual property rights: trademarks, patents, and copyrights. 

Trademarks

A trademark is a “word, phrase, design, or combination that identifies your goods or services.” This can include a company’s logo, name, slogan, and even specific colors (check out the Trademarks page of our Patents libguide for more examples). A trademark keeps others from using your name, phrase, or other protected identifier in unapproved ways. Fireworks can even have trademarks! The companies that create them, like Black Cat (seen below), have their names trademarked.

Black Cat Firecrackers Digital Art by Michael Fleischmann | Pixels

You can find other trademarks for fireworks. If you’re going to a regular fireworks show you probably won’t see any trademarks, but if you attend a very special one, like those presented at Disney parks, you may see one with a fancy name like FANTASMIC!, which is a registered trademark. (By the way, I’m going to use Disney as an example in a lot of this because they do so much with fireworks and intellectual property).

MidwestInfoGuide: Fantasmic - Disney's Hollywood Studios

Patents

As engineers you’re probably most familiar with the patent area of intellectual property. Because of this, I won’t bore you with the details, but you can patent a new combination of chemicals to go in a firework to create a unique effect, an improvement on fireworks racks that reduces the number of injuries to pyrotechnicians, or a “precision fireworks display system having a decreased environmental impact” like Disney. Having a patent keeps anyone but the holder from copying, using, or selling the product of the patent without the patent holder’s consent. 

Copyright

A copyright protects an “artistic, literary, or intellectually created work.” I know what you’re thinking, “how does this relate to fireworks?” For that things can be a little bit tricky, and for an example we will go back to Disney fireworks. A copyrightable work must be in some kind of tangible medium. This is much easier to define when it comes to a book manuscript or a painting, but when something is as tangible and fleeting as a fireworks show the U.S. Copyright Office will take it on a case by case basis. Disney presents the same fireworks shows every night, meaning that there must be some master document that keeps track of when each rocket goes off. It could be effectively argued that this document could be filed for copyright, but again, we are not a legal entity and I am not a lawyer, so please contact your own lawyer if you’re planning to attempt to recreate FANTASMIC! on your own.

Please have a safe and happy 4th of July, and remember that we will be closed on Monday, July 4th, as it is a University holiday. Our normal Summer hours will resume on Tuesday.