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Intellectual Property

Some types of property involve images, ideas, concepts, or arrangements of words. Collectively, these are referred to as intellectual property (IP). For example, someone who designs a better mouse trap and then receives a patent for her idea possesses IP. This property may be sold or licensed to others, but the patent holder may sue if another party uses her patent without permission. Other types of IP include copyrights (such as artwork, photographs, and published books) and trademarks, which are used to identify a brand (the Nike "swoosh," for example). FindLaw's Intellectual Property section covers the three main types of IP and related issues for small business owners. You will also find information about nondisclosure agreements, software licenses, and more.


A copyright is a federal protection provided to the creators of original works, such as books, movies, recordings, music notation, photographs, software, etc. Copyright protections do not extend beyond the actual work being protected, though. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien's Harry Potter books are protected by copyright, but this doesn't stop other writers from publishing books about young wizards.

Copyright owners have the exclusive right to reproduce their works, produce "derivative" works, sell or distribute the work, lease the copyright to others, publicly perform the work, or display the work publicly.


A trademark is used to identity and promote goods or services, distinguishing them from the goods or services of others. They may take the form of words, symbols, or devices. For example, the green mermaid design used by Starbucks Coffee is a trademark used to identify its products. If another company tried to use this or a similar image, then Starbucks could probably sue for trademark infringement.

While corporations typically register their trademarks, it is not always necessary as long as the claimant (the company claiming trademark rights) can prove a legitimate business use of the mark. The key issue is whether another company's use of a mark will create confusion among consumers.


At its most basic level, a patent is the federal protection of an invention. The purpose to encourage innovation by giving the patent-holder (often the inventor) the exclusive right to make, sell, and otherwise use the invention for a limited period of time. There is a fair amount of controversy over how patents are acquired and used by third parties as a means of income through litigation, often through letters demanding license fees (often referred to as "patent trolls").

The three main types of patents are:

  • Utility Patents - These are the most common and are granted for machines, chemicals, and processes
  • Design Patents - These are granted with respect to a product's unique appearance or design
  • Plant Patents - These patents protect the reproduction of plant varieties through grafting or other means other than from seeds

Click on a link below to learn more about intellectual property law.