What is Intellectual Property? - Definition & Laws

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  • 0:02 Intellectual Property:…
  • 0:37 Copyright
  • 2:20 Patents
  • 3:25 Trademarks
  • 5:34 Other Intellectual Property
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Intellectual property rights are an important aspect of the modern economy. In this lesson, you'll learn about intellectual property rights and some of the relevant laws. A short quiz follows.

Intellectual Property: Definition

Intellectual property rights are intangible rights that protect the product of your intelligence, creativity, and invention. Intellectual property rights prevent others from taking advantage of the product of your intelligence or creativity without your permission. Examples of intellectual property rights include a patent granted for a new medical device, a trademark of your company's logo, and the music or novel written by an artist. The primary intellectual property rights recognized in the United States include copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Let's take a look at each.

A copyright grants the exclusive right to produce and distribute expressive original work created by writers, artists, composers, and publishers. While the work need not be in writing, it must be reduced to a tangible form such as on paper, film, or audio recording. You should note that ideas cannot be copyrighted, only the expression of an idea can be copyrighted. You can't copyright the idea of superstring theory, but you can copyright your written expression explaining superstring theory. The expressive work must also be original - sufficiently new and different from other works.

A copyright holder has certain exclusive rights. These exclusive rights include:

  1. Reproducing the work
  2. Creating derivative work from the work, such as creating a series of art pieces based upon a previous piece
  3. Distributing copies of the work
  4. Performing the work publicly, such as reading your poem at a local bookstore event
  5. Displaying the work, such as displaying your art at a local gallery

An important exception to copyright protection is the fair use doctrine. The doctrine permits some limited use of copyrighted materials in certain circumstances. Whether a particular use is covered by the doctrine depends on several factors such as the amount of copyrighted material used, whether the use was for profit, and what the economic effect the use has on the copyright holder.

The primary law governing copyrights in the United States is the Copyright Act of 1976. The law does not require that you register your work with the Copyright Office to receive copyright protection. A copyright is currently good for 20 years.


A patent is a right granted by the federal government pursuant to the U.S. Constitution that prevents anyone but the owner of an invention from making, using, or selling the patented invention for a period of 20 years. The document evidencing your patent is called letters patent. The primary patent law is found in the U.S. Patent Act.

The Patent Act provides a broad definition of what can be patented and includes 'any new or useful process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.' In order to receive a patent, however, an invention must meet three elements:

  1. The invention must be a novelty. In other words, it must be sufficiently different from other inventions that have already received a patent or have their patent application already pending.
  2. The invention must have utility. It must serve some useful purpose.
  3. The invention must be nonobvious, which means that the invention is not something that would be obvious to someone of ordinary skill trained in the art related to the invention.


A trademark protects symbolic information that relates to goods or services. Perhaps one of the most iconic American trademarks are the golden arches of McDonald's. A trademark prevents competitors from using the same symbol. Trademark law is a matter of both state and federal law. The relevant federal law is the Lanham Act. We'll focus our discussion on federal law as it provides the bulk of trademark protection.

Some requirements must be met before you're entitled to trademark protection. The trademark must be used in commerce. Also, the mark must be distinctive, which means it must be able to identify the source of a particular good.

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