Intellectual Property – What Is It?

A guest post by M. Scott Boone.

One of the very first things I teach my first year law students is the difference between what a layman thinks property is and what a lawyer thinks property is. If we were to ask most non-lawyers what property is, they would give us examples like a ring, a car or a parcel of land. However, a lawyer (or at least one that has taken my property class) would say that property is a set of rights in a thing. So property is a bundle of rights that attaches to the ring, the car or  the parcel of land.

Intellectual property is also a bundle of rights, but unlike personal property (the rights in a car) or real property (the rights in a parcel of land), the thing to which the rights attach is not physical. Instead the thing is an intangible such as a work of authorship, an invention, or a source identifier.

Because intellectual property covers an intangible while personal property covers physical objects (called chattels), both types of property can be embodied in the same object. For example, a book is a physical object made of paper, ink and binding materials. As such, an individual can have personal property rights in it. At the same time, the book represents an embodiment of an intangible work of authorship. Thus, copyright applies to it as well. Note that each type of property is frequently owned by different people.  You might own the personal property rights in the book, but the author or publisher still owns the copyright rights in the work of authorship.

The three primary types of intellectual property are copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Trade secrets are a fourth type of intellectual property, though you will see debate as to whether they are better characterized as property or torts. Rights of privacy and publicity are torts often listed as types of intellectual property. Finally, there are a number of very subject matter specific types of intellectual property, referred to as sui generis protections; examples include federal protections for the designs of boat hulls and semiconductor chips.

Let’s look at the basis of the three main types: copyrights, patents, and trademarks.

Copyright subsists in any original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. It is based almost exclusively on federal statutory law, primarily the Copyright Act of 1976. Examples of types of works that copyright attaches to include music, written works, visual art, computer software, and audiovisual works.

Copyright provides a set of six exclusive rights – to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works based on the work, to distribute the work, to display the work publicly, to perform the work publicly, and to transmit a digital audio performance of the work. The last three apply to only certain types of works. Creation and fixation are the only requirements for obtaining copyright, but registration of the work and copyright notice placed on copies of the work can provide additional benefits.

Patents are grants of exclusive rights and can be gained in the US only through an involved application process before the United States Patent And Trademark Office. The US has three types of patents: utility, design and plant. Utility patents are what people typically mean when they say patent; for inventions that are novel, nonobvious and useful, utility patents provide the exclusive right to make, sell, use, or import the patented invention.

Both copyrights and patents provide exclusive rights. That doesn’t mean that they are kept behind a velvet rope and your name needs to be on the bouncer’s clipboard. What it means is that what you get is the right to exclude others. This distinction is best understood through what exclusive rights are not. Exclusive rights do not provide the holder a right to use the work in and of themselves. For example, you might have a right to exclude others from making copies of your book but might not be able to sell copies yourself if your book violates some other law (for example, if it is defamatory or obscene). In the case of patents, you might have exclusive rights to a new pharmaceutical drug but not be able to sell the drug because you do not have FDA approval.

The purpose of both copyright law and patent law is to create incentives that ultimately benefit society as a whole. They exchange private property rights for the creation and publication of works of authorship and inventions. Essentially, both bodies of law say, “If you put in the work and tell us about it, we’ll give you exclusive rights that you can exploit in the market.” Note that modern US copyright law has removed publication component as a requirement for gaining copyright.

Trademarks serve as identifiers of source. In other words, a mark (in the broadest sense) is a word, image, product configuration, or product package that communicates to a consumer the source of a product or service. Examples include the term Xerox, the apple silhouette with a bite out of it used by Apple Computers, and the curved shape of glass Coca Cola bottles. Trademarks originated in the law of unfair competition but are treated very much like property today.

The owner of a trademark can stop someone else from using the same mark or a similar mark that is likely to cause consumer confusion as to the source of goods or services, and, in the case of famous marks, is likely to dilute the mark’s distinctiveness. The purpose of trademark law is to prevent consumer confusion and to allow entities to develop goodwill in their provision of products and services. The latter is then understood to create incentives to provide higher quality goods and services. Trademark rights are obtained by using a distinctive mark to identify the source of goods or services. As with copyright law, registration is not required, but registration can convey significant advantages.

Guest Writer Bio:
M. Scott Boone lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he works as a law professor in order to support a clowder of cats. He writes about legal issues affecting writers at When not writing or teaching, he is a self-proclaimed soccervangelist.

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