If you created it, you own it… except when you don’t.
Both national and international laws control who owns “intellectual property,” the products of your creative genius. Copyright laws govern written works, the narratives in movies and television broadcasts, and most photographic and cinematographic images and icons. Trademarks, service marks, and the little “r” sign protect corporation’s logos and advertising art; in some cases, they even protect the font in the corporation’s advertising. Patents protect inventions.
In the age of the internet, however, everything seems to have gone up for grabs, and violations of intellectual property rights happen a million times every minute. The internet has become “The Wild West” of intellectual property rights: Go ahead and stake your claim to your own idea, but watch every black-hat in the known world claim it as his own. Blogs constantly are raided for their good ideas, and “tweets” are re-tweeted with no regard for the original “poet’s” rights. Every unauthorized download steals somebody’s good idea; every copy of a good design appropriates someone’s precious work of art.
If you’re still in school, your teachers or professors probably have serious cautions about and severe penalties for plagiarism, by far the most common violation of intellectual property rights. Especially in a college or university, where careers and fortunes depend on the quality of a scholar’s ideas, theft of intellectual property represents an extremely serious offense. In the workplace, these rights turn to serious business. Consider, as prime examples, the formulae for popular colas. Their brands depend on their distinctive flavors, and a tiny paper fortress of property protections and safeguards guards those soft drink recipes. In a more quirky example, Harry Caray, longtime voice of the Chicago Cubs, took steps to protect his signature exclamation “Holy Cow!” as his intellectual property, preventing other sportscasters from imitating it without crediting him. Very technically, garage bands should pay for the rights to the songs they cover just as theater producers must pay for the rights to put on new productions of old plays.
Industrial espionage takes questions of intellectual property to their furthest extreme. If the Acme Anvil Company is developing a new carbon-composite anvil guaranteed to fall on the roadrunner every time, Universal Anvil Works certainly wants to see what their chemicals and designs look like-of course, so that Universal can copy and improve upon Acme’s product. Even the first hair-brained notion of the new anvil is Acme’s intellectual property, and using it without paying for it constitutes theft. In a competitive market, though, free enterprise and warfare have a lot in common.
So, what does an attorney do when he or she specializes in intellectual property? The practice consists of protecting original works and making certain that people pay for “fair use” of a creator’s original inventions. Yes, you may Xerox the entire biochemistry textbook…after you pay the copyright holder for the right to copy it. If the publisher catches you bootlegging copies of his biochemistry masterpiece, he can collect both compensatory and punitive damages, because everything about that book right down to the color of the ink and the photo on page 237 belongs to that publisher. The publisher’s attorney secured the copyrights, and now the attorney comes after the bootlegger with full force of the law on the publisher’s side.
If you are a creative artist of any kind, learn how to protect your intellectual property. If you are a law student, consider specializing in intellectual property rights, because it promises to remain one of the hot areas for all of the twenty-first century.