What is Intellectual Property?

Overview of Intellectual Property:

Intellectual property law consists of several separate and overlapping legal disciplines: patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. Intellectual property laws do not automatically prevent someone from infringing on the owner's rights. What the laws do provide, however, is a way for the owner to take the infringer to court. This is the most common reason for people to file for protection of their intellectual property. A brief explanation of each type of intellectual property protection follows:


There are three types of patents: utility patents, design patents and plant patents. Commonly, when people refer to a patent, they are referring to a utility patent, which allows the creator of a useful, novel, nonobvious invention to stop others from making, using, or selling that invention.

Patents are the strongest form of intellectual property protection. Accordingly, patents are the hardest to obtain and last for the shortest period of time.

Analogy: Patents are like a wooden privacy fence: they keep almost everything/everyone out but they are fairly expensive and they require skill to build correctly and properly maintain.


Trademark law consists of the legal rules by which businesses protect the names, logos, and other commercial signifiers used to identify their products and services. One of the most important goals of trademark law is to prevent consumers from being confused in the marketplace.

A trademark is a distinctive word, phrase, logo, graphic symbol, or other device that is used to identify the source of a product or service and to distinguish it from competitors.

Some examples of trademarks are: Nike for shoes and apparel, Apple for computers and software, and McDonald's for fast food.

Trademarks are easier to obtain than patents but harder than getting a copyright. Accordingly, trademarks give a moderate amount of protection -- compared to patents -- and can last longer than patents, if so desired.

Analogy: Trademarks are like a chain-link fence: they keep most people/things out, but it is significantly easier to reach your property. They are cheaper to construct than a wooden privacy fence and they require a fairly low amount of maintenance.


Copyrights are granted for original creative expressions produced by authors, composers, artists, designers, programmers, and similar creative individuals. Copyright law does not protect ideas and facts; only the matters in which those ideas and facts are expressed.

Copyrights are the easiest form of protection to obtain. Accordingly, copyrights offer the least amount of protection, generally, and can last for a long period of time -- often more than 100 years.

Analogy: Copyrights are like a "no trespassing" sign: they keep very few things off of your property but they are very affordable and require little maintenance.

Trade Secrets:

A trade secret is any confidential information that gives a business a competitive advantage. Under trade secret law, the owner of this confidential information and can prevent others from using the information if it was obtained illegally.

Trade secret protection lasts for as long as the business maintains the secret.

Analogy: There isn't a great "fence" equivalent for a trade secret. Trade secrets are, unsurprisingly, like real secrets: if you don't tell anyone they are completely protected, but once the secret gets out you can't get the secret (or the trade secret protection) back.

*portions of the above information have been gathered from the book "Patent, Copyright & Trademark" by Attorney Richard Stim, 9th Edition.*