What Is Intellectual Property? by LegalZoom Staff

What Is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property is a specific type of property created from the mind. It includes patents, trademarks, and copyrights, but also refers to designs, artistic inventions, literary works, and more.

by LegalZoom Staff
updated January 05, 2021 · 3 min read

Intellectual property is an idea, asset, or other creation that you can think up. Inventions are a common example, but intellectual property also includes logo designs, company names, literary or artistic works, trade secrets, expert knowledge, and similar creations. Just like physical property, intellectual property needs to be protected. 

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Why Are Intellectual Property Laws Important? 

In the same way that property laws prevent others from stealing the tangible assets that you own, intellectual property laws protect others from stealing the assets that you’ve thought up and created — your intellectual property. 

These laws encourage businesses and individuals to continue to create new things and flex their creative muscles without being afraid that their ideas could be stolen by others. If intellectual property laws didn’t exist, it would be more difficult for small businesses or individuals to protect their innovations and thought creations from competition and loss. 

Who Writes the Intellectual Property Laws? 

The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to pass intellectual property laws in order “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” 

The framers of the Constitution believed that intellectual property rights were necessary to promote economic independence, innovation, and domestic growth in the young country, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

Common Types of Intellectual Property 

Let’s take a look at some of the most recognizable forms of intellectual property: copyrights, trademarks, and patents. Each category provides different kinds of exclusive rights. We’ll also explore other forms of intellectual property like trade secrets and expert knowledge. 


Copyrights grant the exclusive right to copy, make derivatives of, distribute, or publicly perform or display an original literary or artistic work. Some common examples of works that can be copyrighted include books, movies, music, paintings, drawings, sculptures, databases, advertisements, maps, and architecture. 

How long do they last: Copyrights don’t need to be renewed and, in general, last the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years. 


Trademarks protect the use of some recognizable sign, symbol, or representation of a business’s product that distinguishes it from other products. Common examples of trademarks that can be registered include phrases, mottos, drawings, logos, symbols, fragrances, color shades, the shape and packaging of goods, and almost anything that distinguishes one product from another. 

How long do they last: Trademark owners must provide proof every 10 years that they are using their trademarks in order to maintain them.


Patents grant the exclusive right to make, use, distribute, import, or sell an invention for a certain period of time. There are four main types of patents:

  • Utility Patents: protect new machines, processes, or systems 

  • Design Patents: protect ornamental designs on useful items (such as the shape of a bottle) 

  • Plant Patents: protect new kinds of plants invented or discovered and reproduced by nonsexual means 

  • Provisional Patents: less formal documents that prove an invention is patent pending 

How long do they last: In general, patents last 20 years. 

Trade Secrets   

A trade secret is a piece of information that provides economic value to a business because it is not public information. A trade secret must be commercially valuable, and the owner must rigorously protect the secret. The government will then help the owner protect the trade secret through criminal laws.

How long do they last: Trade secrets can last indefinitely as long as businesses keep the information secret and take certain other steps. 

Expert Knowledge 

Expert knowledge can be intellectual property as well. For example, a world expert on statistics can consult for a financial company to improve their risk analysis software. The financial company may ask the expert for exclusive rights to her statistical knowledge for all financial applications. 

Intellectual property includes almost any creation of the mind, so it’s not surprising that there are many unusual applications. Here are some things that you may not know are considered intellectual property:

  • Order of Songs in a Compilation Album: The arrangement of other works in a compilation is protectable as a separate copyrightable work.

  • Customer Lists: Companies routinely claim that their commercially valuable data is a trade secret.

  • Graphical User Interfaces: The way that an electronic device displays information can be protected under patent law.

Intellectual property is quickly becoming the most valuable property in the world. Recognizing all the ways to protect it is the first step towards protecting and realizing its value.

Have questions about intellectual property you want to protect? You can talk to a lawyer for a low flat fee as part of the LegalZoom business legal plan—or get a 14-day trial as part of a LegalZoom Trademark Registration package.

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