What Is Intellectual Property Law?

What Is Intellectual Property Law? was originally published on Forage.

Intellectual property (IP) law is the field of legal research and protection that covers creations like stories, ideas, inventions, and movies. Lawyers who work in IP help their clients through the legal processes of protecting creations and preventing others from stealing their work. IP lawyers need strong attention to detail and research skills to handle complex domestic and international intellectual property disputes. 

Intellectual Property Law Definition

Intellectual property law involves the laws, rules, protections, and regulations surrounding intellectual property. IP law is the “legal framework that governs the rights and protections of creations of the mind,” says Elizabeth Milian, Esq., founder and managing partner at The Milian Legal Group.

Intellectual property isn’t tangible — it’s something that many people can use without preventing the original owner from using it or degrading its quality or quantity. Other types of property are tangible — they exist in physical forms, and using them lessens their quality, quantity, or availability. For instance, oil is a tangible property. If someone owns a barrel of oil, the more people who use that oil, the less the owner has available.

As a legal system, IP law ensures compensation for artists, authors, inventors, and creators. Additionally, IP protections can foster creativity and further production by guaranteeing creators’ ideas and creations are safe. 

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Areas of IP Law

The main areas covered by IP laws and regulations are copyrights, trademarks, patents, and trade secrets. 


Copyrights protect original works and guarantee the owner the sole legal right to copy, adapt, distribute, display, and perform. To copyright something, you need to prove ownership and originality, and only certain types of works are eligible. Eligible creations include musical compositions, poems, fictional characters, television broadcasts, and computer software. 

Ideas and information aren’t copyrightable, though. For example, the movie Finding Nemo is copyrighted, but the idea of an animated fish isn’t eligible for copyright protection. Additionally, copyrights are subject to fair use limitations. An independent reporter using clips from major news broadcasts to explain a recent event is typically allowed under fair use laws, even though copyright protections cover news broadcasts.  


“Trademarks protect symbols, names, slogans, or any unique identifier that distinguishes goods or services in the marketplace,” says Milian.

A trademark can include signs, designs, phrases, or images on packaging, labels, or products. People need to obtain licenses from the original creator to use trademarked designs or images. We often interact with trademark licenses in our day-to-day lives. For instance, a film franchise may license its images and name to independent manufacturers to create merchandise featuring the film’s name. By buying that merchandise, you’re buying licensed trademarked property. 


Patents cover inventions and prevent others from making or selling reproductions of them for a set number of years. A patented invention typically solves some sort of problem, and the protection for the invention comes with a trade-off: patents are public, so others can see the document and understand how the invention was made. 

While inventions can be tangible things, a patent itself protects the invention of the item, not the physical item itself. So, things like vaccines are patented, but the science that went into creating the vaccine is specifically protected by law. To qualify for a patent, the inventor needs to prove that the idea is new, not obvious, and has a valid practical or industrial application. 

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are “formulas, processes, or customer lists,” says Milian, or things that are “highly confidential information that provide a competitive advantage to a business.”

A key element of trade secrets is that they have inherent economic value — they aren’t available to the general public, so the business can leverage the exclusivity to benefit their activities. Trade secrets don’t have broad or formal government protections. Instead, companies have to find ways to protect their own trade secrets, often through non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and non-compete clauses in employment contracts. 


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Other types of intellectual property IP lawyers help protect include plant varieties, animal breeds, and industrial designs. Internationally, some products have protections for geographical indications. For example, champagne can only be called champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France. Marginalized cultures may also have protections for traditional knowledge (TK) and traditional culture expressions (TCEs) through IP law. 

What Do IP Lawyers Do?

Lawyers in intellectual property law take three primary actions to help clients: counseling, protecting, and enforcing. 


Counseling involves educating clients on their options, rights, and the processes for obtaining protection for intellectual property. Some examples of the ways IP lawyers counsel clients are:

  • Helping clients understand if a trademark is available
  • Explaining the process to obtain a patent and determining the viability of successfully patenting the invention
  • Discussing hypothetical situations of copyright infringement and how the legal team can help in those cases 


IP lawyers work to protect their clients by filing and registering copyrights, patents, and trademarks. This process also involves working with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), acting as a liaison between them and the client to answer questions and resolve disputes. 


To enforce the protection of intellectual property, IP lawyers use legal channels, such as courts and filings. Some actions an IP lawyer may take to enforce their client’s IP include:

  • Filing cease and desists against someone infringing on a client’s copyrighted work
  • Pursuing federal court litigation for patent disputes

IP lawyers also help perform due diligence in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and work to understand international laws to protect clients’ intellectual property both domestically and abroad. 

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Other Careers in Intellectual Property Law

Protecting clients’ intellectual property isn’t only the job of lawyers. Other legal professionals also help, such as: 

  • Paralegals and legal assistants help lawyers prepare documents, file court papers, and communicate with clients. 
  • Electronic discovery specialists perform research and analysis to help attorneys build cases and understand legal issues more thoroughly. 
  • Business professionals facilitate intellectual property uses through mergers and acquisitions, inventions, building systems to protect trade secrets, and working with lawyers investigating IP law issues. 

>>MORE: Explore other careers in law that don’t require going to law school

Intellectual Property Law Firms

Many of the top law firms have specialists in intellectual property. Vault has ranked the top ten law firms in 2024 for intellectual property law as: 

  1. Fish & Richardson
  2. Finnegan
  3. Kirkland & Ellis
  4. Quinn Emanual Urquhart & Sullivan
  5. Cooley
  6. WilmerHale
  7. Wilson Sonsini
  8. Latham & Watkins
  9. Knobbe Martens
  10. Morrison & Foerster 


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How to Get Into Intellectual Property Law

According to Milian, “pursuing a career in IP law requires a combination of specialized education, practical experience, and a passion for counseling innovators and creators.”


The first step toward becoming an IP lawyer is going to law school and passing the bar exam. Ultimately, any major can be applicable to law school. However, degrees in analytical or technical subjects, like mathematics, engineering, or data science, can be beneficial for working with patents and more technological intellectual property. Additionally, studying more traditionally creative subjects, like art, English, or theater, may help with copyright and trademark situations. 

While in law school, it’s important to take IP law classes so you have an idea of what you’re getting into. Internships in IP law can also help. 

“Nothing compares to real world, practical experience, even when you go to a great school,” says Milian.

Although IP lawyers aren’t typically involved with high-pressure criminal cases, IP disputes can still result in court situations. Milian recommends participating in trial skills programs during law school to prepare for court disputes. 

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Lawyers need strong research skills to understand the situations they’re helping clients navigate. Since intellectual property isn’t tangible, it can be complex, especially when infringements of copyrights or trademarks occur overseas where the laws may not be as clear. 

Additionally, Milian says an “analytical thought process and the ability to pay attention to detail will serve you well.”

Other vital skills for a career in IP law include: 

IP lawyers may also need specialized knowledge in specific areas of IP law. For instance, some lawyers may work specifically with protecting films or television broadcasts, so having a deep understanding of the film industry is vital. 

Considering a law career? Explore other types of law:

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