Intellectual Property

  • Add to list Added to list Added
  • Cite
  • Share
  • Embed
  • Download PDFopens in new window


If you have an idea, is that intellectual property? What exactly does “intellectual property” mean?

You have probably heard someone say (or maybe you have even said yourself), “I had that idea years ago—I should have gotten a patent!” But is it that simple? Can you patent an idea?

Let’s take the example of self-driving cars.

A picture shows a head-up display, indicating autonomous driving.

Source: Jorg Greuel/Photodisc/via Getty Images.

Have you ever wished that your car could drive itself? Now, imagine that you could actually patent this idea—a car that can drive itself. What would be your next step? Even if you took your idea to Ford or GM, do you think it’s enough to say, “I have this idea that cars can drive themselves. I don’t know any of the specifics yet—that’s for you to figure out. But since I own the patent, you should pay me lots of money for the idea!”

Imagine the chaos that could ensue if anyone who ever had an idea could just patent it and claim it as their own. Many great inventions would never make it to market if the “idea” alone were enough.

But depending on what sort of idea you have, you can pursue other forms of intellectual property protection. Have you ever written a song or maybe an article for the school newspaper? If so, your work is automatically subject to copyright, meaning that you own your original works of authorship.

In fact, although we tend to think of patents first, there are several other forms of intellectual property (IP) which are just as important, including the aforementioned copyright, as well as trademarks and trade secrets. Each has their own unique use case and comes with a different set of processes to establish protection.

For example, when you see the famous golden arches of the McDonald’s restaurant, you already know what to expect if you eat there.

A picture shows the McDonald’s Golden Arches sign against the background of the sky.

Source: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images News/via Getty Images.

The restaurant chain has trademarked its logo (a large golden “M”), and this mark has become a clearly recognizable symbol for the company. Having a registered trademark on this mark allows McDonald’s to prohibit other restaurants from using the same logo and capitalizing on the McDonald’s brand. In fact, protection for this kind of “distinguishing mark” can extend far beyond logos to include certain phrases (like Subway’s “Eat Fresh”) and even sounds (like the sound of Harley Davidson’s V-twin engine revving). But not just anything can become a registered trademark—the US Patent and Trademark Office has to balance IP protection against the rights of other businesses and individuals to use words, images, and phrases which are commonly used and/or not necessarily representative of a particular company or product.

When talking about IP and IP protections, a lot of focus is placed on technologies that you publicly proclaim as your own (as is the case with a patent, trademark, and copyright). But what if you want to keep something a secret? “Trade secrets” offer many advantages over government-regulated technologies because they aren’t published and don’t expire, like patents do. Instead, the company or intellectual property holder will take steps to protect the “secret sauce,” often including human resource measures like not giving any one person access to all of the information inherent to a technology. Trade secrets have actually been used to safeguard some pretty famous IP, including the recipe for Coke Classic, the seasoning recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the recipe for Hershey’s chocolate. Had these been patented when they were first invented decades ago, the patents would be expired and the recipes would now be fair game for competitors!

Ready to learn more? Watch the video from Yuan Liang, a patent lawyer at Cooley LLP, for his thoughts on intellectual property and entrepreneurship. Then, complete the following self-assessment to test your knowledge about intellectual property. As you work through this Skill, we’ll dive a little deeper into an exploration of the various types of intellectual property, their costs, and their value.

Video 1. Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship

Download transcript

Further Reading