The Concept of Intellectual Property


In law, particularly in common law jurisdictions, intellectual property is a form of legal entitlement which allows its holder to control the use of certain intangible ideas and expressions. The term intellectual property reflects the idea that once established, such entitlements are generally treated by courts, especially in common law jurisdictions, as if they were tangible property. The most common forms of intellectual property include patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets. In civil law jurisdictions, intellectual property has often been referred to as intellectual rights, traditionally a somewhat broader concept that has included moral rights and other personal protections that cannot be bought or sold. Use of the term intellectual rights has declined since the early 1980’s, as use of the term intellectual property has increased.

Intellectual property rights may exist either for an indefinite period of time (in the case of trademarks and trade secrets), or they may last for a term of years, after which they typically expire and become part of the public domain. These rights are governed by the law of the sovereign nation in which the intellectual property was created or established. Traditionally, each nation established and enforced its own intellectual property rights; however, beginning with the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property in 1883, numerous treaties have provided for cross-border protections, multinational procedures, and increasing uniformity. Since its establishment in 1967, the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has become the world’s central organization for promoting internationalism in intellectual property.

There is some controversy with regard to grouping each of the commonly-defined intellectual property rights into a single category, and treating them as if they were tangible property. Critics of intellectual property believe this grouping glosses over fundamental distinctions between various types of exclusive state-granted entitlements, such as copyrights and patents. They also oppose treating works and discoveries similarly to physical property, preferring to maintain a philosophical distinction between natural rights and state-granted entitlements.


The purposes of exclusive rights laws have varied, but they nevertheless have the appearance of granting the “owner” a monopoly on copying or distribution of a protected form of “property”. This was done originally to grant a boon to a king’s favourite (with some positive advantages to the public, since often these grants were prerequisites before a merchant would undertake production).

The use of the term “intellectual property” is often predicated on considerations such as the “free rider problem” or rationalized by problematizing the fact that owners of computers have the ability to produce and distribute perfect copies of digital works. Proponents of the term tend to address exclusive rights policy by valorizing the incentives afforded to authors and inventors in granting them a right to exact a fee from those who wish to manufacture their inventions or publish their expressive works. The analyses associated with the term tend to overlook or even to attempt to defeat the fact, noted by Thomas Jefferson when he took part in wording the exclusive rights clause, that published information is intrinsically free and that in fact this is the whole point of exclusive rights — to publish, to provide information to the public.

By an economic analysis, the incentives granted for patent rights have sometimes served the public benefit purpose (and promoted innovation) by ensuring that someone who devoted, say, ten years of penury while struggling to develop vulcanized rubber or a workable steamship, could recoup her or his investment of time and energy. Using monopoly power, the inventor could exact a fee from those who wanted to make copies of his or her invention. Set it too high, and others would simply try to make a competing invention, but set it low enough and one could make a good living from the fees.

In latter years, the public benefit idea has been downplayed in favor of the idea that the primary purpose of exclusive rights is to benefit the rightsholder, even to the detriment of society at large; and this development has attracted some opponents.

In some fields, patent law has had an unintended, indeed, a perverse consequence: treating abstract rules and mental products like concrete ones has stifled innovation in those fields, rather than aiding it.

The four main types of non-physical things considered by this point of view are copyrights, patents, trademarks and trade secrets. Common types of intellectual property rights include conflicting areas of law:
* Copyrights, which give the holder some exclusive rights to control some reproduction of works of authorship, such as books and music, for a certain period of time.
* Patents give the holder an exclusive right to prevent third parties from commercially exploiting an invention for a certain period, typically 20 years from the filing date of a patent application.
* Trademarks are distinctive names, phrases or marks used to identify products to consumers.
* Trade secrets, where a company keeps information secret, perhaps by enforcing a contract under which those given access to information are not permitted to disclose it to others.

These rights, conferred by law, can be given, sold, rented (called “licensing”) and, in some countries, even mortgaged, in much the same way as physical property (especially real property). However, the rights have limitations, including term limits and other considerations (such as intersections with fundamental rights and the codified provisions for fair use for copyrighted works). Some analogize these considerations to public easements, since they grant the public certain rights which are considered essential.

It is important to understand that authors and inventors exercise specific rights, and the “property” referred to in “intellectual property” is the rights, not the intellectual work. A patent can be bought and sold, but the invention that it covers is not owned at all. This is one of many reasons that some believe the term intellectual property to be misleading. Some use the term “intellectual monopoly” instead, because such so-called “intellectual property” is actually a government-granted monopoly on certain types of action. Others object to this usage, because this still encourages a natural rights notion rather than a recognition that the rights are purely statutory, and it only characterizes the “property” rather than eliminates the property presupposition. Others object to the negative connotation of the term “monopoly” and cite the wide availability of substitute goods. Still others prefer not to use a generic term, because of differences in the nature of copyright, patent and trademark law, and try to be specific about which they are talking about.

Legal status

Exclusive rights are generally divided into two categories: those that grant exclusive rights only on copying/reproduction of the item or act protected (e.g. copyright) and those that grant a right to prevent others from doing something. The difference between these is that a copyright would prevent someone from copying the design of something, but could not stop them from making that design if they had no knowledge of the original held by the copyright holder. Patents and trade marks on the other hand, can be used to prevent that second person from making the same design even if they had never heard of or seen the claimed “property”. Those rights must be applied for or registered and are more expensive to enforce.

There are also more specialised varieties of so-called sui generis exclusive rights, such as circuit design rights (called mask work rights in USA law), plant breeder rights, plant variety rights, industrial design rights, supplementary protection certificates for pharmaceutical products and database rights (in European law).

Types and scope of “intellectual property”

Exclusive rights may be analysed in terms of their subject matter, the actions they regulate in respect of the subject matter, the duration of particular rights, and the limitations on these rights. Exclusive rights policies are conventionally categorized according to subject matter: inventions, artistic expression, secrets, semiconductor designs, and so on.

Generally, the action regulated by exclusive rights is unauthorized reproduction. However, as indicated above, some rights go beyond this to grant a full suite of exclusive rights on a particular idea or product. Generally, it is true to say that exclusive rights grant the holder the ability to stop others doing something (I.e., a negative right.), but not necessarily a right to do it themselves (I.e., a positive right.). For example, the holder of a patent on a pharmaceutical product may be able to prevent others selling it, but (in most countries) cannot sell it themselves without a separate license from a regulatory authority.

Most exclusive rights are nothing more than the right to sue an infringer, which has the effect that people will approach the rightsholder for permission to perform the acts to which the rightsholder has exclusive right. The granting of this permission is termed licensing, and exclusive rights licenses stipulate the extent of the licensee’s ability to perform the acts the rightsholder may control. Other kinds of licenses attempt to establish additional conditions beyond the acts the rightsholder may control, and these licenses are governed by general contract principles. In many jurisdictions the law places limits on what restrictions the licensor (the person granting the licence) can impose. In the European Union, for example, competition law has a strong influence on how licences are granted by large companies.

Copyright licenses grant permission to do something. They are not contracts, since contracts require mutual consent. A patent license is a declaration not to do some things, under certain conditions. Exclusive rights policies in certain countries provide for certain activities which do not require any license, such as reproduction of small amounts of texts, sometimes termed fair use. Many countries’ legal systems afford compulsory licenses for particular activities, especially in the area of patent law.

Most exclusive rights are awarded by a government for a limited period of time. Economic theory typically suggests that a free market with no exclusive rights will lead to too little production of intellectual works relative to an efficient outcome. Thus by increasing rewards for authors, inventors and other producers of intellectual works, overall efficiency might be improved. On the other hand, “intellectual property” law could in some circumstances lead to increased transaction costs that outweigh these gains. Another consideration is that restricting the free reuse of information and ideas will also have costs, where the use of the best available technique for a given task or the creation of a new derived work is prevented.

Arguments against the term “intellectual property”

The term intellectual property is often explained as being problematic by some because the rights conferred by exclusive rights laws are in some ways more limited than the legal rights associated with property interests in physical goods (chattel) or land (real property). The presence of the word property in the term can be seen as favoring the position of proponents of the expansion of exclusive rights in intellectual products, who may thereby more readily draw on the rhetoric of property itself to remove the many natural and legal restrictions on exclusive rights which would be inappropriate if applied to physical goods. For instance, most nations grant copyrights for only limited terms. Additionally, the term is sometimes misunderstood to imply ownership of the copies themselves, or even the information contained in those copies. This would severely differ from physical property laws, which rarely restrict the sale or modification of physical copies of a work (something which many copyright laws do restrict).

A common argument against the term intellectual property is that information is fundamentally different from physical property in that a “stolen” idea or copy does not affect the original possession (see the tragedy of the commons). Another, more specific objection to the term, is that the term is confusing. Some argue that the term implies a non-existent similarity between copyrights, patents, trademarks, and other forms of exclusive rights which makes clear thinking and discussion about various forms difficult. Furthermore, most legal systems, including that of the United States, hold that exclusive rights are a government grant, rather than a fundamental right held by citizens.

Though it is convenient for direct incentive beneficiaries to regard exclusive rights as akin to “property”, items covered by exclusive rights are, by definition, not physical objects “ownable” in the traditional sense. Others point out that the law itself treats these rights differently than those involving physical property.

Some proponents of the term argue that the law is simply recognising the reality of a situation. In some jurisdictions a lease of land (e.g. a flat or apartment) is regarded as intangible property in the same way that copyright is. In these cases too the law accepts that the property cannot be stolen – if someone moves into the flat and prevents you from living there they are not regarded as ‘thieves of the lease’ but as ‘squatters’ and the law provides different remedies. Identity theft is another example of the adaptation of physical property laws to intangible items, though that term itself is seen as problematic by some.


It is not exactly clear where the concept of exclusive rights originated.

The first patent in England was granted by Henry VI in 1449 to a Flemish man a 20 year monopoly (co-incidentally, the current length of UK/EU patents is still 20 years) on the manufacture of stained glass (destined for Eton College). This was the start of a long tradition by the English Crown of the granting of “letters patent” (meaning ‘open letter’, as opposed to a letter under seal) which granted “monopolies” to favoured persons (or people who were prepared to pay for them). This became increasingly open to abuse as the Crown granted patents in respect of all sorts of known goods (salt, for example). After public outcry, James I was forced to revoke all existing monopolies and declare that they were only to be used for ‘projects of new invention’. This was incorporated into the Statute of Monopolies 1623. In the reign of Queen Anne the rules were changed again so that a written description of the article was given.

Outside of England, patent law was the subject of legislative protection in the Venetian Statute of 1474.

Copyright was not invented until after the advent of the printing press and wider public literacy. In England the King was concerned by the unfair copying of books and used the royal prerogative to pass the Licensing Act 1662 which established a register of licensed books and required a copy to be deposited with the Stationers Company. The Statute of Anne was the first real act of copyright, and gave the author rights for a fixed period. Internationally, the Berne Convention in the late 1800s set out the scope of copyright protection and is still in force to this day.

Design rights started in England in 1787 with the Designing & Printing of Linen Act and have expanded from there.

The term intellectual property appears to have originated in Europe during the 19th century. French author A. Nion mentions “propriété intellectuelle” in his Droits civils des auteurs, artistes et inventeurs, published in 1846, and there may well have been earlier uses of the term.

With the French Revolution, which followed the American Revolution, there was controversy over the nature of copyright and patent protections in Europe; those who supported unlimited copyrights frequently used the term property to advance that agenda, while others who supported a more limited system sometimes used the term intellectual rights (droits intellectuels).

The system currently used by much of the Western world is more in line with the second view, with limited copyrights that eventually expire. However, the French Civil Code notion of “moral rights” has connotations similar to natural rights that are inconsistent with the American tradition.

Non-government systems to protect intellectual products

The notion of protecting intellectual works is much older than copyright or patent law. There have long existed socially-enforced systems for protecting intellectual works. These include the ancient scholarly taboo against plagiarism, along with other informal systems such as the code of non-infringement, used by clowns to recognise each clown’s exclusive rights to their unique style of makeup, costume and persona. In the case of ‘The Code’ of the clowns, the universality of the custom lends credence to the clown’s belief that this protection is ‘stronger’ than that provided by trademark and copyright law. Regardless of this, some clowns do trademark, copyright or patent “clown material”, perhaps as protection from infringement by those outside the clown community.

On a more modern topic, “intellectual property” law has been brought to bear on domain names where trademark holders (in particular) have objected to third parties registering domain names which they believe should be theirs. The domain name registries, many of whom are not governmental organisations, have had to find a solution to this and therefore have dispute resolution systems which operate in parallel with national laws. The majority of the generic top level domain names (.com, .net etc.) use the ICANN model known as the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP). Singapore’s Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (SDRP) is loosely based on the UDRP. Other registries, such as the .uk registry Nominet UK have their own different systems. For example, Nominet’s sytem is called the Dispute Resolution Service.


Recently the general trend in exclusive rights law has been expansion: to cover new types of subject matter such as databases, to regulate new categories of activity in respect of the subject matter already protected, to increase the duration of individual rights, and to remove restrictions and limitations on these rights.

Another effect of this trend is an increase in the term of the government-granted rights, and an expansion of the definition of “author” to include corporations as the legitimate creators and owners of works. The concept of work for hire has had the effect of treating a corporation or business owner as the legal author of works created by people while employed.

Another trend is to increase the number and type of what is claimed as “intellectual property”. This has resulted in increasingly broad patents and trademarks: for instance, Microsoft attempting to trademark the phrase, “Where do you want to go today?”. Trademarks in EU law can now encompass smells (e.g. of cut grass for tennis balls), shapes (e.g. of a soft drinks bottle), colors (e.g. red for fizzy drinks), words (e.g. COCA-COLA) and sounds (Harley-Davidson has has registered the roar of its motorcycles and Intel had registered four musical notes). The granting of patents for life forms, software algorithms and business models stretches the initial concept of giving the inventor limited rights to exclude the use of his invention.

Some argue that these expansions harm an essential “bargain” driven between public and copyright holders: as most “new” ideas borrow from other ideas, it is thought that too many “intellectual property” laws will lead to a reduction of the overall creative output of a society. The expansion of exclusive rights is also alleged to have led to the emergence of organizations whose business model is to frivolously sue other companies.

The electronic age has seen an increase in the attempt to use software-based digital rights management tools to restrict the copying and use of digitally based works. This can have the effect of limiting fair use provisions of copyright law and even make the first-sale doctrine (known in EU law as ‘exhaustion of rights’) moot. This would allow, in essence, the creation of a book which would disintegrate after one reading. As individuals have proven adept at circumventing such measures in the past, many copyright holders have also successfully lobbied for laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which uses criminal law to prevent any circumvention of software used to enforce digital “rights management” systems. Equivalent provisions, to prevent circumvention of copyright protection have existed in EU for some time, and are being expanded in, for example, Article 6 and 7 the Copyright Directive. Other examples are Article 7 of the Software Directive of 1991 (91/250/EEC), and the Conditional Access Directive of 1998 (98/84/EEC). In Singapore, the equivalent provisions are found in Part XIIIA of the Copyright Act.

At the same time, the growth of the Internet, and particularly distributed search engines like Kazaa and Gnutella, represents a challenge for exclusive rights policy. The Recording Industry Association of America, in particular, has been on the front lines of the fight against what it terms “piracy”. The industry has had victories against some services, including a highly publicized case against the file-sharing company Napster, and some people have been prosecuted for sharing files in violation of copyright. However, the increasingly decentralized nature of such networks makes legal action against distributed search engines more problematic.