What Is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property is the area of law that deals with creations of the mind: inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce. It covers artistic creations like songs, novels, illustrations and plays as well as inventions, innovations and company logos and other identification marks.

Intellectual property laws exist to encourage new technologies, artistic expressions and inventions while promoting economic growth by assuring creators that their efforts will be protected for some period of time. Individuals who know their labors are protected are more likely to continue producing things that create jobs, develop new technologies, make processes more efficient and generally make our world a better place.

Consider Jeff. Jeff is an illustrator, he makes his living by selling and reprinting his artwork. One day, he discovers that someone has taken one of his original drawings and reproduced it on T-shirts and posters that are being sold online. Of course, Jeff is upset emotionally. His hard work has been taken without credit. But this theft is also upsetting to him financially. Not only is someone making money off his efforts and creativity, he is less likely to make money off that illustration himself now. He decides to sue.

Copyright law gives creators like Jeff certain exclusive rights to reproduce, produce derivative works, and sell their works, and when these rights are infringed, Jeff can file a lawsuit. If that lawsuit is successful, he may be entitled to money damages. In some cases the damages are defined by law.

There are three main mechanisms for protecting intellectual property in the United States: copyrights, patents and trademarks. These terms are often mistakenly used interchangeably, but they are distinct legal mechanisms that protect different forms of intellectual property. The following is an overview of each.


Copyrights are used to protect the expressive arts. Copyrights give owners the exclusive rights to reproduce their own work, publicly display or perform their work, and create works that are based on their own work.

Additionally, copyright owners have the exclusive right to financially benefit from their work—and to prohibit others from making money off their work without their permission. A key point to understand is that copyrights do not protect ideas, they only protect how ideas are expressed.


Patents exist to protect inventions from being made, offered for sale, sold, used, or imported into the country by others for a certain period of time. In the United States, there are three different types of patents:

Utility Patents protect inventions that have a specific function, including things like products, processes, machines and other technology.
Design Patents protect the unique way a manufactured object appears. This could include an original shape or the surface ornamentation (note that this is different from a copyright).
Plant Patents protect plant varieties that are asexually reproduced, including hybrids.

Inventors should recognize that their creation is not patented unless they timely file a patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the patent has been granted. Additionally, utility patents are subject to periodic maintenance fees. Obtaining a patent is a time consuming and complex process. An intellectual property attorney is useful to make sure all the appropriate and necessary paperwork gets timely filed.


Trademarks protect the names and identifying marks of products and companies, such as logos and slogans. Unlike patents, in the United States a business does not have to file paperwork with the government in order for identifying marks to be trademarked. A common law mark is automatically assumed once a business begins using a certain mark in the United States to identify itself and the business may use the symbol TM without filing any sort of form. However, there are significant benefits from registering marks.

Contact an Washington D.C. Intellectual Property Attorney

Whenever you have questions about intellectual property, you should consult with an experienced Washington, D.C. IP Lawyer at War IP Law, PLLC. We will take the time to answer your questions and, if needed, can take immediate action for you to protect your IP and defend against infringement claims. Call us today for a consultation.