What is Intellectual Property Anyway?

(Drafted for a non-legal audience)

IP word cloud

Intellectual property (“IP”) protects intangible creations of the human mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, designs, symbols, brand names, images, and business methods and processes. The most common forms of IP are copyrights, trademarks, patents, and trade secrets.


A copyright protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. The Copyright Act grants the copyright owner the exclusive rights to:

  • reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;

  • prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;

  • distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;

  • perform the copyrighted work publicly (applies to literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works);

  • display the copyrighted work publicly (applies to literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work); and

  • perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission (applies to sound recordings).

Protecting Your Works

Copyright protection arises automatically once an original work of authorship is fixed in a tangible medium. Thus, there are no formal registration procedures required to acquire copyrights. In addition, for registered and unregistered works first published on and after March 1, 1989, the use of a traditional copyright notice (for example, “Copyright © 2017 Cooper Legal, LLC”) is optional. However, the use of the copyright notice may be beneficial in discouraging infringement and may provide evidentiary advantages in litigation. Although no registration is required, a copyright owner should consider enhancing their rights by registering their works with the U.S. Copyright Office. Some of the benefits of federal registration include:

  • Creates a public record of a copyright claim

  • Allows the copyright owner to file suit for infringement in federal court

  • Establishes prima facie (presumption of validity) evidence of the validity of the copyright and facts stated in the certificate (registration must be made before or within five years of publication)

  • Provides eligibility for monetary damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs of litigation (registration must be made prior to infringement or within three months after publication of a work)

  • Allows copyright owner to establish a record with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) for protection against the importation of infringing copies

Duration of Copyright Protection

  • The duration of copyright protection depends on the date of creation and the nature of authorship. Generally, for works created on or after January 1, 1978, the term of copyright is the life of the author plus 70 years after the author’s death. If the work is a joint work (written by multiple authors), the term lasts for 70 years after the death of the last surviving author. For works made for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous works, the term of copyright is 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter. For information related to the duration of copyright protection for works created before January 1, 1978, see Copyright Basics, section “How Long Does Copyright Last?