What is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property is an umbrella term used to cover specific laws that are loosely united in their efforts to manage the relationships between an idea and the tangible expression of that idea (a book, a photograph, an artwork, a sound-recording, a design on fabric, an invention). There is no specific intellectual property law named as such. Rather, the independent legislation for copyright, patents, designs, trademarks, trade-secrets, and confidential information together constitute the ‘laws of intellectual property’. They are grouped under this term ‘intellectual property’ because they are seen to share some dimension of the problematic of determining legally recognized and justifiable rights in the expression of ideas and treating this expression as some kind of ‘property’.

Copyright, patents, and designs are specific laws that evolved slowly and haphazardly from the late seventeenth century. This slow evolution was in response to cultural, political, social, technological and economic shifts that occurred throughout this period. There are early references to the phrase ‘intellectual property’ in French courts in the 1820s and in a specific case in the US in the 1840s but ‘intellectual property’ was certainly not a widely cited or utilized description. It is really only in the 1970s that the phrase begins its movement into popular usage. This was initiated, in part, through the terms’ further institutionalization as the international agency The World Intellectual Property Organization in 1970. Prior to this, copyright or patents or designs were the terms used in popular discourse and were not necessarily understood as connected because they functioned differently and had different foci. While they evolved separately they do share important historical moments that helped constitute their development in legislation. These were in response to specific problems about what exactly the property was, how it could be identified, how it could be measured, how loss could be recognized and compensated, what labor the individual exerted to ‘make’ a work and generally how a right to something that was intangible could be justified.