What are intellectual property rights?

Everyone has an idea of what “property” means. Property gives certain rights over certain material things, like the right to own a car and to decide how it is used. Intellectual property also consists of a set of exclusive rights, but not for tangible things such as cars but for “intellectual works.” “Intellectual works” are creative and immaterial works such as stories, musical compositions, the shape of a piece of furniture, software or an invention. Certain distinctive signs such as trademarks and geographical indications also belong to intellectual property. The holder of a material property (for example, a book copy) does not necessarily have the intellectual property right for this material. As the owner of a book, you can read it, colour in it, throw it away, etc. but you do not have the right to copy the story, reproduce it, put it on the internet, make a film of it, etc. These latter acts are covered by intellectual property and require the consent of the holder of the intellectual property rights concerned.

An intellectual property right gives its holder an exclusive right of temporary use for a given territory. A copyright holder for a book (note: not for the physical book but the intellectual/immaterial content) is the only person who can reproduce or market it. Similarly, a patent holder for an invention is the only person who can exploit this invention (for example, selling a patent-protected medicine). A trademark holder is the only person who may sell the products covered by this trademark (for example, only the holder of the "Côte d'or" trademark may use this sign for chocolate or similar products.

Types of intellectual property rights

Intellectual property rights may be divided into two main categories: industrial property rights and literary/artistic property rights.

Industrial property rights concern creations which play an economic role in production and distribution processes. This is the case for certain innovations such as inventions, medicines, new plant varieties or a new design, which may be protected by patents, plant variety rights and design rights respectively. Industrial property rights may also apply to distinctive signs such as trademarks or geographical indications. While they are not true intellectual property rights, trade names and legal names also benefit from certain kinds of protection.

Literary and artistic property includes copyrights and related rights, including music, literary works, paintings, sculptures, photographs, artistic interpretations, radio broadcasts, etc. More technical creations such as databases, software, topographies and electronic chips are also protected by literary and artistic property rights.

The main distinction between these two groups of intellectual rights is the way in which the right is created. Most industrial property rights are obtained after a formal procedure, generally consisting of registration, while copyrights and related rights emerge automatically at the time of creation.

Systematic presentation


Intellectual property rights (intellectual rights)


Artistic and literary property

Industrial property


Patent rights

Related rights


Database rights

Design rights


Plant variety rights


Geographical indications

Topographies of semiconductor products


Also: what intellectual property rights apply to which creation? 

Why do we protect creations and distinctive signs?

By recognising a specific regime for protecting certain creations through intellectual rights, legislators hope to encourage creativity and innovation. Trademark protection is justified more by an interest in encouraging fair competition. In general, intellectual property rights seek to stimulate the investment of time, effort and money in literary works, technological inventions, new medicines, improved software and better quality products or services.

Furthermore, thanks to intellectual property the spread of knowledge and innovation is encouraged. Keeping your creations a secret is no longer the only way to protect them from copying: the divulgation of the creation itself is a required condition for receiving an intellectual property right. For example, a patent is only attributed if the requesting party describes the invention in a clear and complete manner in such a way that it might be applied by a professional from the concerned sector.

In exchange for the contribution of individuals or companies to cultural or economic life or to technological progress, an exclusive and temporary right of control for their creation or invention is attributed to these individuals or companies in the form of an intellectual property right.

This legal monopoly allows its holder the possibility of recovering the investment made in the creation and to receive income or profits from the success of the creation. If the intellectual right holder chooses not to exploit his creation himself, he may also receive income from his intellectual rights by selling them or attributing licences to third parties. Similarly, intellectual property rights give their holder a solid legal situation which may be useful in case of counterfeiting and other unfair practices.

Therefore, it is worth verifying whether it is appropriate – from an economic, strategic, industrial, competitive or cultural point of view – to request the protection of a creation, invention or specific sign.

Please see intellectual property and innovation for more information on grant programs and innovation stimulation programs.

Last update
9 August 2019