Story: Intellectual property law

In the eyes of the law a person’s creative works – the products of their mind – are regarded as assets. Just like assets that are more solid, these works must be protected from theft or damage.

Story by Susy Frankel
Main image: Karl Sim, New Zealand’s best known art forger, with some of his copied artworks

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Intellectual property

Intellectual property law is a large, detailed area of law that deals with human creativity and innovation. There are three main areas of intellectual property law – copyright, patents and trademarks.

There is some international agreement over what intellectual property should be protected, but different countries have different intellectual property laws. New Zealand’s were originally adopted from British law.


Copyright law protects original creative works such as books, films, music, artworks and plays from being copied. It does not stop information or ideas being copied – only the way they are expressed. However, it can be tricky to decide how similar one work has to be to another to say it has been ‘copied’.

The creator of a work is usually the first owner of the copyright in that work, but they can also transfer copyright to another person or organisation by contractual agreement.

In New Zealand, copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 50 years. In many other countries it lasts longer.

Trademarks and patents

Trademarks protect the names and images that consumers associate with products and businesses.

Patents protect scientific and technological inventions. That can include both products and the specific ways they are made. To be patentable an invention must be new and useful. It must also involve an ‘inventive step’, which means that the invention is not obvious to an expert.

The first patent in New Zealand, issued in 1861, was for an invention that prepared harakeke (flax) fibre for industrial use.

New Zealand laws

New Zealand’s intellectual property laws have some unique features. One relates to Māori and the protection of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge). The Trade Marks Act 2002 and the Patents Act 2013 each require a Māori advisory committee. These committees let the Commissioner of Patents, Trade Marks and Designs know if Māori interests are affected by a trademark or patent application.

How to cite this page:

Susy Frankel, 'Intellectual property law', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

Story by Susy Frankel, published 22 October 2014