What Is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual Property Explained in Less Than 5 Minutes

A musician practices a song she will copyright.

MoMo Productions / Getty Images

Intellectual property is a type of property owned by an individual or business. It’s not physical property, like a car or home; it’s sometimes called “creations of the mind” or “the product of original thought.” The concept of intellectual property is an old one, going back to ancient times, with the goal of encouraging innovation and creativity to benefit society.

Learn the types of intellectual property and how the rights of their creators can be protected.

Definition and Examples of Intellectual Property

Intellectual property, also known as “IP,” is an overall term for ownership of and rights to creative works. It includes inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names, and images used in commerce and business.

Intellectual property owners have specific exclusive rights to their creations. For example, creators of literary works have the right to:

  • Reproduce a creative work
  • Adapt it or create other works from it
  • Distribute copies of the work (sell it)
  • Display the work publicly
  • Perform the work publicly


Included in intellectual property rights is the ability to license a creative work for sale by others. For example, the author of a book may license the right to produce the book in audio format or make a movie from it.

Types of Intellectual Property 

Intellectual property laws in the U.S. and internationally set up the processes to grant rights to the originator of a work or creation. The three main protections are copyrights, trademarks, and patents. Each type may be registered with a specific federal agency and lasts for a specific time period.


Copyrights are used to register original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works. The U.S. Copyright Office registers copyrights for the owner’s life plus 70 years, with additional timelines for joint, anonymous, and pseudonymous works.


Trademarks and service marks are used to register names, symbols, words, devices, or combinations to identify and separate the goods or services of a business from those of others. 

The U.S. Trademark and Patent Office registers these marks, and the registration continues indefinitely, as long as the design remains unique and distinctive and the trademark owner regularly files paperwork required to show the trademark is in use.


Patents are used to register inventions and the discovery of new and useful processes, machines, manufactured products, and compositions of matter. Patent registration is handled by a part of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that’s separate from trademarks. Patent protection lasts for 20 years.


A creative work doesn’t have to be registered to be protected, but registration gives the owner a stronger case if they need to defend their right to the intellectual property in court.

Some intellectual property can’t be registered to be protected. For example: 

  • A book title or domain name can’t be copyrighted.
  • An idea or suggestion or something that isn’t new can’t be patented.
  • A generic word (a common name, like “email”) can’t get trademark protection.

Check with the registration agency before you attempt to register a specific item of intellectual property to be certain you can register it.

International Registration for Intellectual Property

Businesses that operate in several countries may register their IPs internationally.

Copyright protection exists in many countries, but check on treaties and conventions for specific countries through the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Patents and trademarks must be filed separately in each country, but several treaties allow you to file patents in multiple countries. The Patent Cooperation Treaty covers patents, and the Madrid Protocol covers trademarks.

Overview of Intellectual Property Protection 

Registration Process Protects U.S. Registration Agency Exclusive Use Term in U.S. International Registration 
Copyright Works of authorship, including books, movies, artwork, photos, web content U.S. Copyright Office Author’s life plus 70 years; different time spans for joint, anonymous, and pseudonymous works With individual countries, through the World International Property Organization
Trademark Unique identifiers for a business products or services U.S. Patent & Trademark Office Indefinite as long as distinctive and active Madrid Protocol 
Patent Inventions, industrial designs, computer code  U.S. Patent & Trademark Office 20 years  International Patent Cooperation Office

Other Types of Intellectual Property 

In addition to the three types of intellectual property discussed above, there are some others that may be registered as copyrights, trademarks, or patents.

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are confidential information owned exclusively by someone that can be sold or licensed. To qualify for protection, the information must be commercially valuable and the owner must keep it confidential, including requiring key people to sign confidentiality agreements.

Some examples of trade secrets are:

  • Technical information, like manufacturing processes, and computer program designs and drawings
  • Financial information, formulas, recipes, and computer programming source codes
  • Commercial information, such as supplier and customer lists, and advertising strategies

Some trade secrets can be registered. For example, a company’s secret recipe for a product can be copyrighted. Registering a trade secret makes it public, but provides protection against use or sale by others.

Digital Assets

Digital assets like phone apps, your social media site, computer programs, and your business website can be protected in the same way as other assets. Some of the digital assets eligible for IP protection include:

  • Computer programs and parts of those programs, including user manuals, HTML (as a literary work), source code, and video games may be copyrighted.
  • Algorithms, software, and specific ways of implementing the features of an application may be patented.
  • The content (authorship) of a website may be copyrighted. Content on a social media site may be copyrighted, including writing artwork, or photos, depending on the rules of the social media platform.
  • The design or logo of a website may be trademarked.

Key Takeaways

  • Intellectual property is a creative idea such as an invention, unique business identifier, or creative work of authorship.
  • Owners of intellectual property have exclusive rights to the property, including selling them to others for profit.
  • Owners must register their intellectual property in order to keep their IP rights. The main types of registration are copyrights, trademarks, and patents.
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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Copyright Office. "What Is Copyright?"

  2. United States Patent and Trademark Office. "2701 Patent Term [R-10.2019]."

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