Patents offer the most significant and effective protection for intellectual property assets produced by those working in high-technology areas, like computer hardware and software, telecommunications, aerospace, and life sciences and pharmacy. As with copyright, patent protection is justified with a quid-pro-quo theory: by providing temporary monopolies to originators of new valuable information or products that manifest it, in exchange for public disclosure, the government encourages the production of such information that will eventually anyone will be free to use.

Of the four categories of IP protection, patent provides the strongest protection. On the other hand, the term of this protection is typically much briefer than those of other forms of intellectual property, and the process of obtaining a patent is more expensive, lengthy, and challenging, than the acquisition of protection for other forms of IP.

We typically think of a patent as providing its owner the exclusive rights to manufacture, use, sell the protected invention, machine, etc. In fact, a patent does not affirmatively provide these rights to the patent owner; rather a patent provides the owner negative rights to prevent others from using, selling, etc. the patented invention. If, for instance, I obtained a patent for a powerful new chemical defoliant, my patent does not give me an affirmative right to manufacture and use the defoliant. Public safety and environmental laws would likely prohibit my doing so. If and when I am legally permitted to manufacture and use my invention, my patent gives me the right to forbid anyone else from doing so. In other words, a patent is limited to a property right: a child may legally own a sports car, but this property interest does not give him the right to use the car. It does, however, give him the negative right to forbid others from using the car.