Intellectual Property Law Practice Areas Explained: The Differences Between Patent Law, Trademark Law, Copyright Law, Trade Secret Law and Licensing Law Explained

Examples of intellectual property are music, books, movies, artwork, product names, logos, slogans and packaging, inventions that qualify for patent protection, and information that is kept secret and not commonly known.

When people think of IP lawyers, they usually think of patent attorneys, which is no surprise given that a good majority of IP lawyers are patent attorneys. Patent attorneys, however, are not the only types of IP attorneys. Under the umbrella of IP lawyers also fall trademark, copyright, trade secret, and Internet/e-commerce attorneys.

Significantly, where property such as machines may have once been the primary source of a company’s worth, in today’s economy much of a company’s worth comes from the ownership of intellectual property. In general, there are five basic types of intellectual property work that attorneys do.These areas are: a) Patent, b) Trademark, c) Copyright, d) Trade Secret, and e) Licensing.


  1. PATENT LAW. Patent law protects inventions. By filing and obtaining a patent from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the inventor of a product receives a monopoly on the commercial exploitation and use of a product for up to 20 years. Patents can protect the functional features of a process, machine, manufactured item, asexually reproduced plant, or composition of matter, for example.
  2. TRADEMARK LAW. Trademark law protects words, phrases, logos or symbols used to distinguish one product from another. In circumstances where a competitor uses a protected trademark, the holder of the trademark can go to court and obtain an injunction to stop the use.
  3. COPYRIGHT LAW. Copyright law protects the creators of expressive works, such as artists, photographers, writers, and musicians, and gives them the exclusive right to protect how their works are used. It is important to note that, unlike trademark law, copyright law does not protect names or titles. One way that copyright law can be distinguished from trademark law is in the advertising context. Trademark law would commonly protect the name of the product being advertised, while copyright law would protect the expression. For example, the statement in an advertisement: "If you drive this X car, you will undoubtedly realize it is among the best in the market for what it does," is an example of something that would have elements of copyright and trademark within it.
  4. TRADE SECRET LAW. A trade secret is “A secret formula, method, or device that gives one an advantage over competitors.” If the owner of the trade secret takes reasonable steps to keep the trade secret “secret,” courts will protect the trade secret owner from unauthorized disclosure by (1) industrial spies, (2) competitors who wrongfully acquire the trade secret, (3) employees of the owner of the trade secret, and (4) anyone with any type of duty not to disclose the information.
  5. LICENSING LAW. While licensing law may make use of all the areas of law above, it is a popular-enough type of work that it merits some discussion. A license is a grant of permission to do something with an otherwise protected work or product. Copyright holders, for example, can give permission to other individuals to copy their work, or a trademark owner can grant a license to another to use the trademark.