Find an Intellectual Property Law Lawyer

Thanks to the Internet and the emergence of new technologies, U.S. intellectual property law is an area where litigation is flourishing. “Intellectual property” (IP) refers to something created by the mind or intellect of a person or a business entity. Inventions, books, art, music and software are some examples. IP laws are designed to safeguard the rights of the person or entity who created the item of property.

Doing business on the Web is a growing area of risk where laws are concerned. As of 2005, the laws are lagging behind regarding cyberspace and IP. As the desire for creating wealth from information grows, so does IP theft and IP infringement. With more workers skilled in manipulating computer data, trade secrets, marketing documents and customer lists, and operation manuals have become hot items in the marketplace. In a February 2005 case, for example, the FBI looked into whether a Ford employee stole computer programs and sold the counterfeit software on eBay.

IP issues abound in today's courtrooms regarding the downloading of music and other digital files over the Internet. An October 2004 U.S. Department of Justice Intellectual Property Task Force report cited counterfeit pharmaceuticals, cell phone batteries, automobile parts, and bootleg DVDs as further examples of IP theft. The report concludes IP theft threatens the U.S. economy, along with its citizens' health and safety.

Protecting IP

The law grants protection of items of intellectual property through (1) copyrights, (2) trademarks, symbols and names, or (3) trade dress (the looks and packaging of a product). Each of the three protection methods has a different set of rights and obligations, term lengths for the rights, different allowances for the amount of damages and remedies that can be obtained in court judgments, as well as differing rules regarding international rights. Each requires a different set of proof of ownership rights if the matter comes to litigation. IP cases are litigated in different courts (federal courts have jurisdiction over patents, for example).

Intellectual Property Agreements

Business owners are wise to ensure they have signed IP agreements with their staff. Such agreements establish foundation for the ownership of property should a lawsuit arise in an employment context. Normally, employers own the IP rights for products developed at the company; but there are exceptions, for example, where the creation of property involves an independent contractor.

Using an IP Attorney

IP attorneys come into play for two primary reasons:

(1) To defend or prosecute in cases where someone is accused of IP theft or infringement. This effort focuses on determining who really owns an item of intellectual property, and such determinations are not always simple or straightforward. For example, work done on the employer's time and as part of the employee's duties is the property of the employer. However, some argue that the law pertains to the work done but not the knowledge that the work was based on. To some degree, intellectual property rights can be protected but serious consideration must be given to possible consequences which can arise. Valuation of the amount of loss incurred by the IP theft or infringement is another focus of the attorney's efforts.

(2) To assist businesses in strategies and contractual documents that limit access to IP by third parties. This may include writing developing documents for royalty fees or product licensing. Companies need to select IP attorneys with global protection strategies. Increasingly this area of law includes assisting businesses with non-disclosure agreements and non-compete agreements that govern employee disclosure of trade secrets after termination of the employment relationship.

By Kathleen Goolsby           

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