What is intellectual property (IP/IPR)

For many people, the term "intellectual property" (IP) or "intellectual property rights" (IPR) covers patents, copyrights, trademarks and database rights. Intellectual property is becoming more and more important in the field of computers, programming and ICT in general.

Intellectual and industrial property

Legal scholars often make a distinction between intellectual and industrial property. Intellectual property then covers copyright and related rights, whereas industrial property means patents, trademarks, trade secrets, plant breeder's rights and so on. Traditionally this distinction was made because industrial property rights were mostly used by industry, whereas intellectual property right was "only" for artists, writers and other creative people.

Today the distinction between the two has almost disappeared. Most people use "intellectual property" as a catch-all term, including patents and other items that traditionally were considered "industrial property."

IP and IPR

The term intellectual property (IP) is sometimes used as something separate from intellectual property rights (IPR). In such cases, the term IP means the (abstract) product of the intellect and the term IPR means a legal right covering IP. For example, an invention and an original work of authorship are intellectual property and protected by the intellectual property right called "patent" and "copyright".

The term IP is also used to denote things for which no explicit legal right is provided. An invention can be protected by a patent. An original work of authorship is protected by copyright. A distinctive product name can be registered as a trademark. But for instance, a domain name or a trade secret can be considered IP but there is no separate legal right to protect these. Hence they cannot be called IPR.

Types of IP

There are many types of intellectual property. However, this site focuses on the ones that are most important for ICT. These are:


A patent is the exclusive right to make, use or sell an invention in a country. In order to get this right, the inventor must apply for a patent at his patent office. Patents provide very powerful legal remedies against infringers, even against infringes who have developed the same invention completely independently.


One of the most visible rights that the author of a work has, is the copyright over his work. Almost everything that is published, whether eletronically or not, is copyrighted. In general, a work is copyrighted when it is created, and it is not necessary to apply for copyright. Some countries may, however, give extra protection to works that are registered. In any case, when a work is copyrighted, others may not use or redistribute the work without the permission of the author.


A trademark is, broadly speaking, any mark that is used for indicating goods or services in commerce. Normally trademarks are words or an image (a logo), although occasionally colors or sounds can also be trademarks. Usually, it is necessary to register the mark with a local trademark office before it gains protection under trademark law. A trademark holder can forbid others from offering particular goods or services using the trademark or a confusingly similar sign. It is also often possible to act against use of the trademark which dilutes its reputation.

Database rights

Database rights are a relatively new phenomenon in IP law. Usually, protection for collections of facts was only available under copyright law if the collection was somehow original, for example a top 10 list. The European Union passed in 1996 a Directive to create a separate (sui generis) right to protect databases. This right controls extraction and reutilization of the contents of a datatabase.