What is an intellectual property right?

Intellectual property rights are legal rights. In general, intellectual property right owners (also known as right holders) can use their rights to prevent other people or organizations from using their creations or innovations without their authorization. By legally granting creators and innovators a limited amount of “control” over their creations and innovations, the intellectual property system enhances the value of those creations and innovations. This control strengthens the ability of creators and innovators to manage their creative and innovative outputs and secure a return from those that are commercially successful. Most intellectual property rights are tradeable: they can be sold outright (known as assignment) or the holder can retain ownership but authorize certain uses of the intellectual property (known as licensing).

Two other points are also very important. First, intellectual property rights are territorial; in other words, they are limited to a particular country or group of countries (region), and depend on the relevant national or regional law. Second, intellectual property rights are essentially private rights. The intellectual property system provides a legal framework for the creation, registration or grant, and enforcement of intellectual property rights, but it is up to the right owner to protect and exploit them. If intellectual property rights are, or are likely to be, misused or violated by others, the owner generally needs to request the competent authorities

What are different types of intellectual property rights? In what ways do they differ?

Broadly speaking, the different categories of intellectual property serve two different purposes.

Patents, designs and copyright enable creators and innovators to get recognition for and commercial reward from their creative and inventive outputs. In essence, these intellectual property rights allow creators and innovators to have a say over when and how others copy or use what they have created and invented.

In contrast, protection granted to trademarks and geographical indications helps to differentiate particular goods and/or services from competing goods and/or services, and to make those goods and/ or services more attractive to consumers through “intellectual property-smart” marketing and branding.

Different types of intellectual property rights have been created to protect different kinds of creations and innovations in different ways and for different purposes. The different types of intellectual property rights differ in regard to the:

  • subject matter of protection;
  • requirements for the grant of protection;
  • conditions for protection;
  • nature of the rights granted, including the type and extent of limitations and exceptions to the granted rights; and
  • duration of the protection granted.

Balancing intellectual property rights and the public domain

Unlike property rights in most tangible objects (like land or a car), property rights in intangibles such as intellectual property are not absolute. There are exceptions to them and they are limited in certain ways.

For example:

  • certain uses of copyrighted works, patented inventions and protected marks are permitted with no need to seek authorization from the owner of the intellectual property right; and
  • certain types of subject matter cannot be protected by intellectual property rights.

A key concept in this regard is the public domain. Broadly speaking, this refers to any content which is not protected by intellectual property rights and so is free to be used by anyone. Content may be in the public domain because it was never protected by intellectual property rights or because it used to be protected but the rights have expired. The public domain and the exceptions and limitations to intellectual property rights aim to balance the rights of intellectual property rights holders, consumers, competitors, follow-on creators and innovators, and the public at large. For example, copyright protection prevents a creative work from being copied, but other creators are allowed to be inspired by it or borrow from it in certain ways to create new and original works. This fosters creativity, artistic freedom and cultural diversity. By striking the right balance between the interests of creators/innovators and the wider public interest, the intellectual property system seeks to nurture a fair environment in which creativity and innovation can flourish.





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