In our current age of online information sharing and open knowledge bases, it can seem a little bizarre or antiquated that the legal rights protecting intellectual property in this country are as complex and elaborate as they are. But actually, in spite of all the changes brought by our modern technological age (or perhaps because of them), intellectual property issues are often at the forefront of the conversation on the law. Just think of the debate over music downloading, which forced a giant piece of the entertainment industry to rethink the way it sold its products. Indeed, the fast pace of change in the present day makes understanding intellectual property–and the patents, trademarks and copyrights that go with it–more important than ever. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the broad strokes that define these concepts, starting this week with patents.

A patent, in a nutshell, is simply a right granted by the government to an inventor allowing that person to hold a monopoly over their idea for a certain amount of time–meaning that during its duration, no one else can produce, sell or market the invention except the patent holder. As might be obvious, this is meant to encourage innovation and protect those who come up with ideas for useful contributions to society from having their idea stolen out from under them (in which case there would be no point to innovating in the first place)! There are several types of patents, and plenty of criteria that determine whether an idea is suitable to be patented; but the main prerequisites are that the invention is new and has never existed before, and that it isn’t obvious–a person knowledgeable in the inventor’s field would have to consider the invention a surprising or novel one.

Beyond these basic criteria, there are more complex rules governing what is patentable and for how long. And though in large part they may seem like common sense–for instance, only products, designs and devices are patentable, not natural substances or abstract notions–the system by which we characterize ideas as “patentable” or “unpatentable” has been, like much of our legal framework, worked out painstakingly over time in the legislative record.

Patents are also unique in that they must be applied for by the inventor, and don’t arise naturally, unlike copyrights (which we’ll get to shortly). Patents are also not used to indicate a design’s origins as in the case of a trademark. At the end of the day, they are used exclusively to protect an inventor against the possible theft of a useful idea. They provide a monopoly on the use, sale and manufacture of a certain invention or design, and in that way they provide an essential service to a society that prides itself on forward-thinking and innovation.