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Intellectual Property vs. Copyright: What is the Difference?

November 16, 2021
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Understanding intellectual property law is no small task. For one thing, it is constantly evolving along with improvements and changes to technology and ease of access to creations and information through the internet. For another, the different types of protections afforded under intellectual property law can be difficult to keep straight, which may be why “intellectual property vs. copyright” is a phrase frequently typed into search engines.

To cut to the chase, copyright is a form of intellectual property protection. However, it is important to have a solid grasp on what exactly is considered intellectual property, and how copyright fits under intellectual property along with the other types of protections.

What is Intellectual Property?

When we use the term “intellectual property,” we are referring in general to any type of creation or invention. More specifically, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) defines intellectual property as “creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.”1

​​Intellectual property law, then, is a series of protections over innovations and creations. Those who put in their time, creativity and talents to advance technology, art or inventions in their respective industries should be rewarded for their work, and intellectual property laws are designed to ensure this happens. These laws stop other competitors from copying works or inventions and in effect stealing and profiting off of original ideas. Intellectual property laws are key to protecting a brand’s reputation and the value of its original products.

Intellectual property law impacts nearly every industry. Authors, artists, filmmakers and other creatives benefit from intellectual property protections, as well as industrial fields and technology, data and privacy fields, as code and proprietary programming is considered intellectual property. Even new breeds of plants or plant discoveries fall under intellectual property protections.

The origin of intellectual property rights can be traced all the way back to the 17th century. The first was a British statute, The Statute of Monopolies, which was enacted in 1624. It prohibited most royal monopolies, but preserved the right to grant a letters patent for new inventions for up to 14 years.2 The second British law, The Statute of Anne, also known as the Copyright Act of 1709, gave book publishers legal protection for 14 years, and granted 21 years of protection for books already in print.3 Nearly 400 years later, intellectual property laws have grown to cover a wide variety of creations and inventions. It is interesting to note, however, that these initial laws applied to copyrights, which leads us to our next section.

What is Copyright?

A copyright is one of the four types of intellectual property protection, which also includes patents, trademarks and trade secrets. Intellectual property is the creation and copyright is one of the types of laws that protects it. According to WIPO, copyright, also sometimes called author’s right, is a legal term “used to describe the rights that creators have over their literary and artistic works. Works covered by copyright range from books, music, paintings, sculpture, and films, to computer programs, databases, advertisements, maps, and technical drawings.”4

Although there is no exhaustive list of materials that fall under copyright law around the world, WIPO has provided the following list of works commonly protected by copyright:4

  • Literary works—novels, poems, plays, reference works, newspaper articles
  • Computer programs and databases
  • Films, musical compositions and choreography
  • Artistic works—paintings, drawings, photographs and sculpture
  • Architecture
  • Advertisements, maps and technical drawings

Copyright law has been a part of the U.S. Constitution since 1790, and the Copyright Act gives authors ownership of their creative work, including reproductions, distribution, performance, display, duplication, and more.5 Copyright law has changed over time, mainly in the length of the coverage applied to a work depending on whether the work was published and the exact date of publication. If published after 1978, it can last for 70 years after the author’s death, or if it's an anonymous work, 95 years after its first publication or 120 years from its creation, whichever is first.6

There are two types of rights that fall under copyright. These are economic rights and moral rights.4 Economic rights which allow the copyright owner to obtain financial reward when others use their works. Moral rights protect any interests of the copyright holder that are not economic.

A copyright is perhaps the most common form of intellectual property that laymen might recognize, as literature, movies and music play a pervasive role in everyday life.

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Intellectual property law is complex, especially in today’s world. Gain a better understanding of different areas of intellectual property law and build a strong foundation in copyright law, as well as patent and trademark law.

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  1. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from wipo.int/about-ip/en/
  2. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from britannica.com/topic/patent#ref791882
  3. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from historyofinformation.com/detail.php?entryid=3389
  4. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from wipo.int/copyright/en/
  5. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from arl.org/copyright-timeline/
  6. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2019/01/a-whole-years-worth-of-works-just-fell-into-the-public-domain/