What is intellectual property?

"Intellectual property" is a general term that refers to a variety of legal mechanisms to protect intangible personal property rights. Some forms of intellectual property or "IP" are identified by a certificate issued by either the federal or state government, while others have been developed by the courts over time in recognition of what is fair and important to business and the public, referred to as the "common law." Other types of intellectual property take both forms.

Each form of intellectual property has its own rules and requirements for achieving protection and is designed to protect a particular aspect of a product, service, art form, or other intangible asset. For a given situation, one form of intellectual property may be of significantly greater benefit than others or may be the only protection possible. Sorting out what forms of protection are available to you or your company is, therefore, the first step in establishing an effective intellectual property protection program.

The most common forms of intellectual property fall into the following categories:

  • PATENTS - inventions, developments, and improvements, such as devices, machines, methods of manufacture, business methods, pharmaceutical products, ornamental designs for useful objects, and new varieties of plants.
  • TRADEMARKS - product and company names, logos, and other identifiers.
  • COPYRIGHTS - marketing materials, catalogs, manuals, and software.
  • TRADE SECRETS - confidential business, financial, and technical information.

Although this list is of distinct forms of intellectual property, in many cases, several types of intellectual property protection may apply to the same product. For example, the exterior design of a piece of equipment, in some instances, can be protected under both the patent and the trademark laws.

There are other forms of intellectual property-related law, such as rights of publicity and rights of privacy, that have been developing over time, as well as specific state statutes, such as state consumer protection laws. All of these areas can play a role in developing a program for protecting the intangible assets of your business.