By Dr. Gary L. Deel  |  07/13/2023

intellectual property law


As an attorney and a business professor, one subject I teach on frequently for the purposes of smart business management is intellectual property. Intellectual property can hold tremendous value for a business – even more than the physical, tangible assets a company owns. But what is intellectual property, what is intellectual property law, And why do both matter?

What Is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property (IP) is a category of property that includes intangible creations of the human intellect. There are many types of intellectual property, and the laws of different countries recognize and protect different kinds of intellectual property in different ways.

For the sake of clarity, this discussion will focus only on American laws related to this topic, i.e., intellectual property recognized under United States law includes patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets.


The Importance of Intellectual Property Rights

Diving deeper into the concept of intellectual property, it's clear that the power of intellectual property law goes beyond just the protection of ideas. The intellectual property law, in essence, bestows exclusive rights to the creators or inventors, giving them the power to reap benefits from their inventions or creative works. Intellectual property rights foster an environment that encourages innovation and creativity.

When exploring intellectual property laws passed in the United States, we find that laws protect four primary forms of intellectual property: patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets.



A patent is a protection which gives the creator or owner of an original invention – which can be a tangible product or a process – the legal right to exclude others from using it for a limited period of time. In some industries, patents are an essential form of competitive advantage, but in others they may not make much difference at all. Patents can be expensive to obtain and maintain, so pursuing them is not always worth it for every idea.

In filing a patent, the creator or owner must file and publish a full disclosure of the invention and its details so as to put the rest of society on notice about what is being claimed and protected.


Patent Types and Their Role in intellectual property Protection

Delving further into the world of patents, it's essential to recognize the different types available under the United States patent law. Generally speaking, there are three types of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents.

Utility patents, the most common type, protect the functionality of an invention or process. The term "patent pending" often refers to an invention that has a utility patent application filed but not yet granted.

Design patents, on the other hand, protect the unique appearance or design of a manufactured item. It is worth noting that they do not cover any functional aspect of the item.

Plant patents are specifically for inventors who have invented or discovered and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant.


Intellectual Property Law: Attorneys and their Role

While the patent owner has the exclusive rights to their invention, enforcing these rights can sometimes be complex. This is where intellectual property lawyers can step in. They can guide inventors through the legal system, helping them understand their rights and obligations under federal and state laws and patent law.

Moreover, if patent infringement occurs, a law firm specializing in intellectual property can represent the patent owner in federal court. They can aid in securing license agreements or seeking damages for unauthorized use of the invention, effectively ensuring that the inventor's exclusive rights are upheld.


Intellectual Property Law designed to Protect Patents

Over time, several intellectual property laws have been passed to ensure inventors' exclusive rights are protected and to stimulate innovation. One such property law is the America Invents Act, which shifted the U.S. patent system from a "first to invent" to a "first inventor to file" system.

With government agencies like the United States Patent and Trademark Office playing a pivotal role in implementing these laws, intellectual property rights continue to be a cornerstone of industrial property, facilitating technology transfer, and supporting economic growth. This robust intellectual property system, overall, helps safeguard the fruits of human intellect.


U.S Patent and Trademark Office

An application must be filed with the U.S Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and the application must include a description, drawings, and claims that define the scope of the invention.

The USPTO will then examine the application to determine if it meets the requirements for patentability. If the application is approved, the USPTO will issue a patent that grants the owner or creator exclusive rights to the invention for a period of 20 years from the filing date of the application.



A trademark is a protection for a word, phrase, symbol, or design that is used to identify and distinguish the goods or services of one person or entity from those of others.

There are two main types of trademarks: trademarks and service marks. As the names imply, trademarks are used to identify goods, while service marks are used to identify services.

For example, the Nike “Swoosh” is considered a trademark, while the McDonald's “Golden Arches” are considered a service mark. But they both carry the same legal protections.


How to Trademark Something

Like patents, trademarks must be registered with the USPTO. To register a trademark, creators or owners must file an application that includes the mark itself, a description of the goods or services that you use the mark with, and a specimen of the mark.

The USPTO will then examine the application to determine if it meets the requirements for registration. And if the application is approved, the USPTO will issue a registration certificate. Once a trademark is registered, the creator or owner has the exclusive right to use the mark in commerce, and no one else can use the mark without the owner's permission.

Trademarks must be distinct and non-deceptive in order to be eligible for registration. An example of a deceptive characteristic that would likely result in a trademark being unable to be registered would be a description of “Swiss” for a product that is not made in Switzerland.

Registered trademarks use the ® symbol and unregistered trademarks use the ™ symbol. While registered trademarks enjoy broad protections, unregistered trademarks can generally only be enforced within the geographic area where they are used in commerce.


The Durability of Trademarks and Their Impact

Building upon the foundation of trademarks, it's important to note that unlike patents, trademarks do not expire after a set period. As long as the trademark owners continue to use the mark in commerce to indicate the source of goods and services, a trademark can last indefinitely.

Trademark law plays a significant role in driving economic growth and foreign commerce. They help maintain consumer trust and loyalty by ensuring that brands are unique, easily recognizable, and not subject to misleading advertising.


The Role of Intellectual Property Law in Trademark Protection

As is the case with patents, navigating the trademark registration process may require expertise. Intellectual property lawyers can help business owners identify potential trademark issues, submit well-prepared applications, and understand the difference between the exclusive rights of registered and unregistered marks.

It's also worth noting the importance of a trademark search before applying for registration. The search helps ensure that the intended trademark does not infringe on existing trademarks.

Moreover, if a trademark dispute arises, having a legal team well-versed in intellectual property and state laws can help safeguard the owner's exclusive rights. They can assist in addressing unauthorized use or violations of the owner's exclusive rights under state and federal law, protecting the integrity and value of the trademark in question.

Trademarks serve as powerful tools in the business world, helping brands create an enduring identity and competitive advantage while promoting fair trade and consumer awareness. Understanding the nuances of trademark protection is essential for every business owner and creator.



A copyright is a protection which gives owners or creators the exclusive right to copy, distribute, adapt, display, or perform a creative work. The creative work may be in a literary, artistic, educational, or musical form. Examples include songs, books, articles, photographs, painting, sculptures, stage and movie scripts, and other creative works.

Unlike patent protection, copyright protection is automatic in the United States, meaning that you do not need to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office to be protected by copyright law.


The Copyright Office

However, registering your work with the Copyright Office can provide you with a record of ownership should you need to take legal action against someone attempting to use your copyrighted work without permission in the future.

To be eligible for copyright protection, a work must be original and fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This means that the work must be created by the author and that it must be recorded in some way, such as in writing, on film, on a record, or in a computer file.

Copyright protection does not extend to ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, or discoveries, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

For example, a copyright would not protect an idea for a new movie, but it could protect the way a movie is eventually written, casted, directed, and produced.

In the United States, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. In the case of works created by multiple authors, the copyright lasts for the life of the last surviving author plus an additional 70 years.


The Intricacies of Copyright Protection

Expanding on the premise of copyrights, it's critical to understand that while the protection doesn't require registration, securing official registration with the U.S. Copyright Office can bolster your legal standing in potential infringement cases.

Beyond providing a public record of ownership, copyright registration allows copyright owners to seek statutory damages and attorney's fees in federal court, which are often significantly higher than actual damages. In essence, this acts as a deterrent for potential infringers, making it riskier for them to misuse the copyrighted material.


The Role of Intellectual Property Law in Copyright Law

Similar to patents and trademarks, intellectual property lawyers can provide valuable guidance in copyright matters. They can help creators understand the nuances of copyright laws, assist with copyright registration, and provide advice on how to best protect their artistic expressions. In cases of copyright infringement, these legal professionals can defend the creator's rights and seek appropriate remedies.


How Copyrights Support Economic Rights and Fine Arts

Copyrights are integral to stimulating innovation in the arts and literature, offering creators the chance to earn recognition and financial benefits from their work. They serve to balance the public interest in the wide dissemination of the creative works and a creator's right to profit from their creativity.

Understanding copyrights is vital for anyone who creates or uses copyrighted material. As we increasingly operate in a digital world where content is easily shared and duplicated, knowledge of copyright law becomes even more crucial to respect and protect original intellectual work.


Trade secrets

Finally, a trade secret is a protection that gives a creator or owner the exclusive right to use, disclose, or sell a kind of sensitive business information. Trade secrets can include a wide variety of different types of information, including formulas, recipes, manufacturing processes, customer lists, marketing plans, financial information, and other valuable data.

Like copyrights, trade secrets do not have to be registered in order to enjoy intellectual property protections. But the information in question must meet a number of criteria in order to qualify as a trade secret.

First, the information must not be generally known to the public. Second, it must be of some demonstrable economic value to the party claiming protections. And third, reasonable efforts must have been made in order to try to maintain its secrecy.

If these criteria are met, then the owners of trade secrets may sue other parties who attempt to usurp or misappropriate them.


Strengthening Trade Secret Protection

As we delve deeper into the realm of trade secrets, it's crucial to understand that trade secret protection primarily hinges on the owner's efforts to maintain secrecy. This can involve implementing robust security measures, sensitive business information access control, and nondisclosure agreements for employees and partners who have access to the information.

In addition, the dynamic nature of trade secrets calls for constant monitoring and adjustment of protective measures to maintain their undisclosed status. Training courses for employees about the importance of protecting trade secrets can also play a significant role in maintaining confidentiality.


The Role of Intellectual Property Law in Trade Secret Protection

Intellectual property lawyers are instrumental in developing strategies for protecting trade secrets. They can help draft confidentiality agreements, establish security protocols, and provide guidance on federal and state laws concerning trade secrets.

Furthermore, should a trade secret be compromised, these legal professionals can support litigation in state or federal court, seeking remedies for unauthorized use or disclosure of the trade secret.


Trade Secrets and Economic Growth

Trade secrets, such as a unique manufacturing process or a secret recipe, can offer a competitive advantage, driving economic growth and innovation. They are valuable intangible assets contributing significantly to a company's success and growth.

Understanding the nature of trade secrets and the measures needed for their protection is crucial for businesses that rely on proprietary information for their competitive edge. Indeed, trade secrets are a significant component of a robust intellectual property strategy.


Why Does Intellectual Property Matter?

IP rights are important because they encourage creativity and innovation. By giving inventors and creators exclusive rights to their work, intellectual property laws allow them to profit from their investments and recoup their research and development costs. This, in turn, encourages them to continue to innovate and create new products and services that benefit society.


IP Laws

IP rights are also important for consumers. By protecting creative works, intellectual property laws help to ensure that consumers have access to a wide variety of products and services. Without intellectual property protection, it would be much more difficult for consumers to find new and innovative products and services, and prices would likely be higher for this kind of material.

On the other hand, the law also recognizes a right of the public to be able to leverage and enjoy intellectual property.

For this reason most intellectual property rights have a limited timeframe with an eventual expiration, at which point the intellectual property enters the “public domain,” meaning the public can use the property in any way it wishes without fear of legal repercussions. An example of intellectual property that just recently entered the public domain is the fictional children's storybook character Winnie the Pooh.

In most cases, disputes over intellectual property rights are settled through civil litigation. But there are also criminal statutes that prohibit certain egregious usurpation of intellectual property. intellectual property is a complex and evolving area of law. If you have any questions or concerns about intellectual property and related rights, you should consult with an intellectual property attorney.


The Intersection of Intellectual Property Law and Economic Rights

Diving deeper into the relevance of intellectual property, we must look at its contribution to economic rights. As previously discussed, the exclusive rights granted to inventors and creators are pivotal in ensuring fair economic returns. They further contribute to economic growth by incentivizing further investments in research and development, which invariably lead to innovation.

In fact, two government agencies – the United States Patent and Trademark Office and the World Trade Organization – play pivotal roles in fostering technological progress and promoting foreign commerce. Through their regulatory frameworks, they aim to facilitate technology transfer and create a competitive, fair, and balanced marketplace.


Intellectual Property Law and Consumer Awareness

The impact of intellectual property laws extends to consumer awareness as well. By providing protection to unique and innovative products, these tangible property laws facilitate the launch of original goods and services into the market. As such, they aid in enhancing consumer choice and ensure quality.

Furthermore, trademarks proposed and registered under the guidance of intellectual property laws passed help deter misleading advertising. This assists in maintaining a high degree of transparency and integrity in the marketplace, boosting consumer trust and brand loyalty.


Intellectual Property Law and the Public Domain

The finite nature of intellectual property rights, leading to the transition of works to the public domain, is another essential facet. It fosters creativity and innovation, allowing creators to build upon previous works without infringing upon rights. Moreover, it aids in increasing accessibility and affordability of various works, be it in the realm of fine arts, literature, or technology, contributing to societal progress.


Intellectual Property Law Firms and Their Roles

As the realm of intellectual property evolves, it's crucial to have experts who can navigate this complex legal system. From understanding nuances of copyright laws, patent laws, common law, and state laws to formulating client's patent, trademark, or license agreement, these professionals provide critical support.

Intellectual property law firms can further support businesses in developing strategies to protect inventions, trademarks, and trade secrets, enabling them to maintain competitive advantage. In cases of patent infringement or unauthorized use of trade secrets, these firms represent clients in federal court, seeking appropriate remedies.

In conclusion, the role of intellectual property law is multifaceted and profound, contributing to individual rights, economic growth, consumer choice, societal innovation, and even regulation of foreign commerce. Understanding this complex system is essential for creators, businesses, consumers, and society as a whole.



About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is an associate professor with the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business at American Public University. He currently holds 13 degrees in areas such as space studies, hospitality and tourism management, psychology, higher education administration, and criminal justice, including a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in hospitality/business management. He is currently working on another degree and teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University, and others.

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