The notion of intellectual property as ‘ownership’ over an idea or expression is widespread, but the particulars are often misunderstood. This page is meant to be an introduction - top layer, simple, definitional - to orient those who may have not yet encountered the specifics of intellectual property.
The "Helpful IP Links" to the left point to other sites that contain further information or guides. IIP particularly recommends the chapter from the freely available textbook Citizen Engineer. Although the focus is on engineering concerns, the explanation of intellectual property is highly accessible and clear for any discipline.
What is intellectual property?
There are four types of intellectual property in the United States: patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets. At PSU we use the first three types - as a university committed to letting knowledge serve the world, we do not deal in trade secrets.
Regardless of type, “intellectual property” is not an idea or expression that someone owns, but rather an ability given to individuals or institutions by governments to prevent others from doing some activity. This ability itself is what is “owned” when we talk about intellectual property ownership. Intellectual property can be thought of as a bundle of activity rights around an idea or expression that can be withheld or granted in strategic ways to achieve some goal centered on that idea or expression.
For example, the bundle of rights around a patent in the United States includes the ability to prevent others from using, making, selling, offering for sale, or importing a specifically defined idea (see patents for what kind of ‘ideas’ can be patentable). The bundle of rights around a copyright includes the ability to prevent others from copying, distributing, displaying, derivatizing, or performing a particular expression. The owner of these rights can prevent anyone else from doing these activities in order to do these activities themselves (see important caveat to this in the patents page), or can grant others permissions to do these activities. When the owner of these rights grants permission for others to do these activities, they are licensing these rights.
Each type of intellectual property has its own benefits and its own quirks.
About Intellectual Property
Patents as a form of intellectual property are meant to protect inventions - ideas that are new in the world and can spur innovation. The ideas they protect, although often spelled out in great detail in patent documents, are by their nature abstract.
Creating impact with innovation requires much more work than simply filing a patent. That's where licensing comes in. A license to the patent will be given in exchange for a fee, and depending on the technology, a patent could be licensed many times to many different licensees.
Copyrights as a form of intellectual property are meant to protect original works of authorship. Works that are copyright protected are by their nature fairly concrete, in that the protection accrues to a very particular expression.
Copyright is a unique expression fixed in tangible form. Specifically, work (the thing that represents the copyright) which resulted from your use of the tool/media that created it, whether physically or electronically stored.
Trademarks as a form of intellectual property are meant to protect a brand name or symbol so that the owner’s product or service is easily distinguishable from a similar product or service.
Intellectual property can be thought of as a bundle of activity rights around an idea or expression that can be withheld or granted in strategic ways to achieve some goal centered on that idea or expression. This is achieved through the process of licensing.