Intellectual Property

Photo of clear cube, the Patent pending: Solar Puff is a solar-powered inflatable light that was designed to provide an affordable and renewable light source to disaster-relief victims. The light uses the principles of origami and foldable design to “pop” open from a flat envelope into a cube.

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the purpose and characteristics of intellectual property law
  • Explain patents
  • Explain copyrights
  • Explain trademarks


To this point we have discussed laws governing people and things, but what about laws protecting knowledge or ideas?

The notion that knowledge is valuable goes back to ancient times. In the 1st century AD, Juvenal (55–130) observed, “All wish to know but none wish to pay the price." However, the value of knowledge in an economic or business sense—knowledge recognized as a type of asset or property that one might wish to protect—is much more recent, dating back to the seventeenth century or so (the Statute of Monopolies [1624] and the British Statute of Anne [1710] are seen as firmly establishing the concept of "intellectual property"). Since then, a special body of law concerning the protection of knowledge and ideas has developed. Known as intellectual property law, these laws cover intangible assets such as patents, trademarks, and copyright.

What Is Intellectual Property?

The term intellectual property refers to creations of the mind—creative works or ideas embodied in a form that can be shared or enable others to recreate, emulate, or manufacture them. There are three main ways to protect intellectual property: patents, trademarks, and copyrights. 

Patents protect inventions and improvements to existing inventions for a limited period of time in exchange for detailed public disclosure of those inventions. 

Trademarks include any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods of one manufacturer or seller from goods manufactured or sold by others, and to indicate the source of the goods. Service marks include any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used, in commerce, to identify and distinguish the services of one provider from services provided by others, and to indicate the source of the services.

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S.Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works. 

A Creative Commons (CC) license is one of several public copyright licenses that enable the free distribution of an otherwise copyrighted work. A CC license is used when an author wants to give people the right to share, use, and build upon a work that they have created. CC provides an author flexibility and protects the people who use or redistribute an author's work from concerns of copyright infringement as long as they abide by the conditions that are specified in the license by which the author distributes the work.

According to Cornell University Law School, “intellectual property is any product of the human intellect that the law protects from unauthorized use by others.”  Take a look at the following video to learn more about what intellectual property is and why it matters.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered above. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.

Licenses and Attributions

More Study Resources for You

Show More