Intellectual Property 101: A (Very) Brief Overview

Some people reading this post might already be familiar with all of this, but recently I’ve been getting enough questions about the basics of intellectual property law that I thought writing up a brief primer would be helpful to some of the game devs, composers, artists, and everyone else out there.

Mother_Brain_(Metroid_NES)

I’m not entirely sure why this image of Mother Brain came to mind when thinking about intellectual property, but here it is.

What Is Intellectual Property?

When people use the word “property,” the image that comes to mind is usually something tangible, like potatoes or iPads. The law recognizes three broad categories of property: personal property, real property, and intellectual property.

  • Personal property is stuff that is tangible and “moveable,” like aforementioned potatoes or iPads.
  • Real property is tangible but not moveable, like land and buildings.
  • Intellectual property is neither tangible nor moveable, like copyrights and trademarks.

People are generally pretty accustomed to dealing with the first two – it’s that third category that tends to get people into trouble nowadays, so here’s a quick overview of the four general types of intellectual property.

  • Copyrights protect creative works fixed to a tangible medium, like song recordings, literature, or paintings.
  • Trademarks protect words, symbols, or designs that identify a source of goods.
  • Patents protect useful, functional inventions.
  • Trade secrets are devices or techniques that a company uses to manufacture its goods that aren’t generally known or ascertainable.

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