If you wanted to, do you think you could sing Adele’s “Hello” or Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” record it, make copies, sell it for money, and keep all the profits? Do you think you could open a restaurant, put a big Golden Arches out front, and call it “McDonald’s”? Do you think you could take apart a Samsung Galaxy S, figure out how works, open a factory, and sell your own smartphones?

Do you know that by doing these things you’d be breaking the law? And, if so, do you know why?

It’s because Adele’s “Hello” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” McDonald’s’ name and Golden Arches, and Samsung’s Galaxy S are somebody else’s intellectual property.

What is “intellectual property”?

“Intellectual property” (or “I.P.” for short) refers to creations of the human mind (also known as the “intellect”) that are a non-physical (or intangible) form of property. Just like physical (or tangible) property, intellectual property is something that people can own. Intellectual property is the original expression of an idea that later becomes something tangible.

Imagine you’re a writer and you come up with an amazing idea for a new story (like the author J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). Or imagine you’re a business owner and you come up with an amazing idea for a new slogan (like the sportswear company Nike did with “Just do it”). Or imagine you’re an inventor and you come up with an amazing idea for a new machine (like Willis Carrier did with the first modern air-conditioning unit). At that very first moment, the story or slogan or machine that’s inside your head is just an idea, and ideas themselves can’t be property; they can’t be owned. (We all can imagine whatever we want.)

But at the moment that idea is expressed – for example, by being written down (in the case of a story) or advertised (in the case of a slogan) or diagrammed (in the case of a machine) – it becomes a kind of property. And when something is property – whether physical or intellectual – it becomes ours. When an idea is expressed and becomes a new creation or invention, the creator or inventor becomes its owner.

What are intellectual property “rights”?

People who own physical property – from clothes to computers to cars to houses – have what are called ownership “rights” to that property: they get to decide when and how to use it, whether to let others use it, and whether to sell it. If someone takes something you own – like a necklace or your favorite pair of sneakers – without your permission, they have violated your rights. By stealing something that doesn’t belong to them, they have committed the crime of theft.

These same general rules apply to people who own intellectual property: just like the owners of physical property, they get to decide when and how to use it, whether to let others use it, and whether to sell it. The creators and inventors of all sorts of intangible things – novels, poems, textbooks, movies, TV shows, paintings, sculptures, music, lyrics, websites, sound recordings, product names, company logos, advertising jingles, product packaging, tools, machines, computer programs, formulas, medicines – have intellectual property rights to those things. Other people need their permission before they can use them.

What are the major kinds of intellectual property rights?

The three major kinds of intellectual property rights are “copyright,” “trademark,” and “patent.”

Why do intellectual property rights exist?

The main purpose of intellectual property rights is to give people a reason to create or invent things. If copyright, trademark, and patent didn’t exist, individuals and companies might worry that others would steal or unfairly profit from or unjustly harm the reputation of their creations or inventions. If individuals and companies couldn’t be sure that they’d have an opportunity to benefit financially from and to maintain artistic control of their creations and inventions, they might be a lot less willing to invest their time and money in creating and inventing things.

Because society as whole benefits when people create and invent things, our legal system encourages individuals and companies to do so by ensuring – through the enforcement of copyright, trademark, patent, and other intellectual property rights – that they’ll receive recognition, profit, and protection from unfair competitors (including pirates, counterfeiters, and thieves).

Intellectual property rights are intended to strike a balance between (a) protecting the interests of people who create and invent things and (b) protecting the interests of the general public. Creators and inventors get to benefit financially from their creations and inventions while the rest of us get to use and enjoy them – from superhero movies to hybrid cars to life-saving medicines to the knowledge that wherever we happen to be on the face of the Earth, a “Big Mac” and a “Coca-Cola” will be a “Big Mac” and a “Coca-Cola,” rather than poor (and potentially dangerous) imitations.

For more information

If you’d like to learn more about copyright, please visit the United States Copyright Office (USCO) website at The non-profit Copyright Society of the USA runs a great website for kids of all ages at

If you’d like to learn more about trademark or patent – or about other kinds of intellectual property rights, including industrial design and trade secrets – please visit the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website at The USPTO website also has interactive specialized pages for teens at and for younger kids at

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