Intellectual Property (IP) rights protect creators and entrepreneurs when they create and produce new things. IP rights give creators exclusive control over their inventions, designs, literature, and other creative work. However, not everything can be intellectual property and get the protections that they do. This blog post demystifies what cannot be intellectual property and clarifies common misapprehensions in this crucial legal area.

Emerson Thomson Bennett helps protect your creative and business ventures by offering knowledgeable guidance on IP laws. Let’s dive in to understand the boundaries of what you can—and cannot—claim as your own in the realm of intellectual property.

#1. Ideas and Concepts

Intellectual property laws protect the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. Ideas or concepts can only be protected when they are expressed physically. This can be done through a written book or a patented invention. Before that point, it is free for anyone to use and develop.

Misconceptions About Ideas

It’s a common belief that one can claim ownership over an original business idea. However, without concrete development – such as a written business plan or a built product – an idea remains part of the public domain. This is why confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements are vital when pitching new concepts. 

At the same time, the minimum you need to meet for an idea to become more than an idea isn’t high. For example, inventions don’t need a working product, a patentable design would work.

#2. Facts and Information

Unlike creative works which are expressions of original thought, facts simply exist. They are discovered, not created, and hence cannot be owned or protected by copyright or patent law.

Distinguishing Creative Expression from Facts

While a database or a particularly creative presentation of facts may receive copyright protection, the facts themselves do not. To explain how this works, consider a copyrighted article detailing the dates and events of historical occurrences. The historical events are not copyrighted, but the language and structure the author used to write the article are.

#3. Common Words and Phrases

Trademark laws in the United States prevent any entity from claiming exclusive rights over a common language to maintain fair competition and free communication.

Limitations on Protection

Trademarks protect brand identifiers such as logos or slogans. These can include words and phrases. However, trademarks cannot protect generic words or phrases, especially ones commonly used in trade.

Avoiding Trademark Conflicts

Trademarking a common phrase can lead to disputes by:

  • Causing confusion among consumers
  • Cause older trademarks to infringe on the new trademark of a common phrase

It’s crucial to perform comprehensive trademark searches and consult an IP attorney, like those at Emerson Thomson Bennett, before trademarking any common word or phrase.

#4. Natural Phenomena and Laws of Nature

You can’t claim the rain, gravity, or the speed of light. Laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas are considered discoveries. While an invention can leverage these concepts, the phenomena themselves cannot be owned.

This includes scientific discoveries. For instance, Einstein did not – and could not – patent the theory of relativity. A scientific fact, principle, or discovery is knowledge that forms the foundation for further research and development.

Contact the IP Attorneys at Emerson Thomson Bennett

Understanding what cannot be intellectual property is as critical as knowing what can. For legal advice and services concerning your business’s intellectual property, reach out to Emerson Thomson Bennett. Our dedicated IP attorneys are equipped to ensure your innovations stay safeguarded within the full extent of the law. Contact Emerson Thomson Bennett today for tailored support on your intellectual property journey.



We provide complete intellectual property representation to business owners, inventors and artists in all matters related to the establishment and protection of domestic and international patents, trademarks and copyrights. Attorneys at our firm also serve as in-house IP counsel for companies whose needs do not call for a full-time internal position.


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