Intellectual property law is the area of law that deals with legal rights to creative works and inventions. It controls who gets to use creations including new products, artistic works and designs. The purpose of intellectual property law is to allow the people who create and invent things to profit from their work. Lawmakers believe that it’s fair for creators to profit from their own work product.
Types of intellectual property law
Intellectual property laws concern the ideas people have and the things that people create. It involves both scientific works and creative works. The rules for claiming exclusive rights to a work and the rules for enforcing those rights vary depending on the type of the creation. The areas of intellectual property law include:
- Copyright – Copyrights protect an owner’s right to their own creative work. Works covered by copyright include print, performances, music, choreography and movies. When you have a copyright, other people can’t reproduce your work for their own profit. To receive a copyright, your work must be unique. There must be significant creative work that goes into your production. Because of international copyright agreements, you don’t have to formally register a copyright to have it. However, you can register it. If you do, it’s prima facie evidence that you have a copyright on the work. Formal registration allows you to claim attorney fees and statutory damages if someone violates your copyright.
- Patents – A patent is the legal right to an original invention. During the term of the patent, no one else can make the product, sell it or distribute it without permission. In the United States, the term of a patent is 20 years.
- Asking for patent protection requires careful documentation of the novelty of the invention. You must show that your idea is new. You must be able to carefully describe the patent in sufficient detail so that both government officials and the public can determine what your invention is and what rights you have.
- Trademarks – A trademark is a design, symbol, lettering or words that represent a company or product. It’s an identifier. A trademark distinguishes your company or product from others. Like copyrights, you don’t have to register a trademark to have it. You can have a trademark just by regularly using a symbol or design to represent your product. However, it’s important to register your trademark because registration gives you a legal presumption of ownership. Unlike a patent, a trademark can last forever. When you have a trademark, you have the exclusive rights to make and sell products that use the trademark. An example of a trademark is the design logo of a sports team. Trademarks play an important part in business, and trademark attorneys help their clients protect their brand.
- Industrial design rights – Sometimes, inventors don’t make products. Instead, they make new designs to make products. These are called industrial designs. Industrial design rights protect the rights of the creators to use and profit from their creations. The Hague Agreement Concerning the International Deposit of Industrial Designs addresses industrial design rights internationally.
- Plant variety rights – Horticulturalists have long been breeding plants into new and better varieties. When someone creates a new plant, they have exclusive rights to the plant and the plant materials. A person or company holding the rights to a new plant can choose to grow the plant themselves or sell licenses to grow and use the plant.
- Trade dress – Trade dress is essentially packaging. When a company sells a product in unique packaging, they may have exclusive rights to present the product in that way. Claiming a trade dress right can be complicated. You must prove that your packaging is aesthetic rather than functional. You must show that consumers are interested in the packaging as well as in the product.
- Trade secrets – A trade secret is a formula or plan for doing business. It’s a system or a way of doing things that gives a company an advantage over a competitor. For example, Coca-Cola doesn’t have a patent on their signature Coca-Cola drink. However, it’s protected as a trade secret. If a competitor gets the recipe in an unlawful way, Coca-Cola can bring an action for a trade secret violation.
Intellectual property law changes
With the advent of the digital age, intellectual property law has changed significantly. Enforcement of intellectual property has become more challenging. Abuses of intellectual property rights protections have increased too. The area of law continues to grow and evolve. Intellectual property lawyers are part of this discussion.
Intellectual property law is often international
International property law often raises international issues. When a person creates something in the United States, they may want to preserve their right to profit from the work in another country. Many countries don’t have the same intellectual property laws that the United States has. Finding ways to protect client interests abroad can be challenging. Intellectual property lawyers must know international laws, and they must know how to help their clients harness those laws effectively in order to help their clients meet their objectives.
Practicing intellectual property might also involve creating international agreements. For example, international copyright agreements aim to create uniform rules for claiming and enforcing copyrights internationally. Intellectual property lawyers might work on behalf of the government in order to negotiate and draft these agreements.
Who practices intellectual property law?
Many lawyers make their career out of practicing intellectual property law. Because the area of law often involves technical and scientific information, lawyers with a background in science, technology and math often do well in this field. Lawyers who practice patent law must pass a special examination in order to practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office. They must demonstrate that they have a background that qualifies them to handle scientific and technical matters.
Intellectual property lawyers help companies claim and register intellectual property protections. In addition, intellectual property lawyers both bring intellectual property lawsuits and defend against them. If you practice intellectual property law, you might help people who create works protect their rights. To bring a civil claim, you draft and file a civil lawsuit and then prepare your case. You use the rules of civil procedure in order to conduct discovery. Preparing your case involves proving that the violation occurred and showing your damages.
Defending against an allegation of an intellectual property rights violation also involves civil litigation and the rules of civil procedure. Because an intellectual property law violation can sometimes be a criminal matter, lawyers in this area might find themselves practicing criminal law to the extent that they defend their clients against allegations of criminal wrongdoing. Intellectual property lawyers who work as defense counsel must consider the criminal and civil liabilities for their clients.
Intellectual property lawyers work on behalf of both individuals and corporations. They might practice only intellectual property law, or they might incorporate the area of law into a larger civil litigation or business practice. Intellectual property laws can change quickly, so lawyers in this area must enjoy studying the changes in the laws as they advocate for their clients.
Why become an intellectual property lawyer?
If you want to build a solid practice that involves technical information as well as litigation, intellectual property law might be for you. Intellectual property lawyers are often good at reasoning and mathematics. If you have a background in the sciences, you might enjoy being able to use it regularly and in depth during your practice of law in the intellectual property field.
For lawyers who enjoy grappling with detailed, technical information, intellectual property is an area of law that provides welcome challenges. When a client’s success depends on explaining the scientific aspects of an invention or product, a talented intellectual property lawyer may greatly enjoy the challenge of understanding the information and presenting it in an effective way.
Intellectual property can be a strong practice area. Intellectual property lawyers are often in high demand. They live and work throughout the United States, but they may need to travel occasionally. For the right lawyers, intellectual property is both challenging and financially rewarding.
Protecting the right to use your own products
Intellectual property lawyers work for their clients, but they also perform a public service. Lawmakers think that intellectual property laws encourage innovation. Intellectual property lawyers protect their client’s rights to their unique and innovative works. Intellectual property law is an in-demand, challenging, niche area of law for lawyers who enjoy technical information and civil litigation.