What is Intellectual Property Law?

How the law protects creations of the mind

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on February 2, 2023

Creatives and scientists create works that fall under intellectual property law protections. If you have invented something or made a work of art or brand, you might find it helpful to understand what protections the law offers you and how it helps you stake a legal claim on your work.

The following overview gives you a look at the different types of intellectual property. After you have identified what category your work belongs in, you may find it helpful to visit with a lawyer to help you get the legal process started.

Intellectual Property Law – What You Need to Know

  • The many regulations around intellectual property protection is often comprehensively referred to as “IP law.”
  • This area is designed to protect inventors and creatives from unauthorized use of their creations.
  • There are four different types of intellectual property law: copyright law, trademark law, patent law, and trade secrets law.
  • IP law influences all industries, including biotechnology and entertainment, where industrial designs and creative works are common.

Overview of IP Law

The regulation around intellectual property protection is often referred to as “IP law.” Intellectual property rights (IPR) are more abstract than your run-of-the-mill property rights because they protect intangible “creations of the mind,” things like artistic expression and design choices. Those who benefit most from IP rights are typically inventors and artists.

The goal of intellectual property law is to establish ownership of ideas and creations so that the government can enforce the owners’ exclusive right to use those ideas or creations. The rationale for IP protection is that it will help ideas keep their value since they cannot be easily replicated and passed around. IP laws also offer protection from fraud and keep innovation alive and well.

Intellectual property law is an umbrella term that covers trade secrets, patents, copyrights, and trademarks. Included in these laws are remedies for violation, which include cease and desist letters and damages.

Patent Law

Patent rights protect inventions and prevent others from making, using, or selling your invention. Patents don’t last forever, though it may be possible to extend the period of time in some cases. Be aware, however, that a patent will only protect your fully developed invention; it will not protect a mere idea you have.

There are three kinds of patents: utility, design, and plant patents. Each type of patent grants the patent owner the right to exclude (prevent other people from making or selling the invention) and the right to sue for patent infringement. To obtain patent protection, you will need to follow a detailed patent application process.

Trade Secrets Law

Trade secret protection is a broad area of law that protects economically valuable information. The Coca-Cola formula is a classic example of a trade secret. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) requires information to meet three requirements to qualify for trade secret protection. The information must:

  1. Possess either actual or potential economic value by being kept a secret
  2. Have value to other parties who do not have or cannot legitimately obtain the information
  3. Be subject to reasonable efforts to keep it a secret.

To qualify as trade secret, all three above prongs must be met. Otherwise, the information will not be eligible for trade secret protections.

Copyright protection defends artistic works from unauthorized use. Examples of works eligible for protection under the U.S. Copyright Act include books, music, choreography, photos, sculptures, and architecture. Like patents, copyrighted works are not protected indefinitely, but they generally outlive the copyright holder.

Once you have created an original work, copyright exists automatically. However, if you want to enforce it in litigation, it may be necessary to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Additionally, while it is no longer required, a notice of copyright can also strengthen your claim.

Trademark Law

A trademark is a recognizable word, phrase, or symbol used to distinguish the source of products. Registering a trademark protects brand names and logos and is registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This office recommends considering the likelihood your mark will be confused with other marks and how similar your trademark is to others that already exist.

You are not necessarily required to register your trademark to establish exclusive rights that the law will protect. Simply using the mark in commerce is often enough to establish trademark rights. Registration, however, provides public notice that you have legal rights, and it allows you to use the registered trademark symbol, ®. Learn more information about registering your trademark and the benefits of doing so.

Common Questions for an IP Attorney

Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an attorney for the first time.

  1. What is considered intellectual property?
  2. What form of IP protection do I need—trademark, patent, or copyright?
  3. How do I make sure my ideas are protected?
  4. What do I do if someone is using my intellectual property?
  5. What are the pros and cons of trade secrets vs. patents?
  6. Can I appeal registration decisions?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.

To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer who practices intellectual property law. It might also be helpful to speak with someone with specific experience with trademarks or patents.

Should I Talk to a Lawyer?

Filing applications to protect your intellectual property can be a complex process that you want to ensure you do correctly on your first attempt to save yourself time. A lawyer can help you apply for protection with the level of detail and specificity that is expected.

If you would like to bring a case against someone for appropriating your intellectual property, the help of a lawyer will be indispensable. Your lawyer will gather the necessary documentation and help you interview potential witnesses to prove you have a claim to the creation.

A lawyer will anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them. Your lawyer will also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.

What do I do next?

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