If you’ve ever wondered about the importance of intellectual property (IP), think about this. The inventor of the karaoke machine, Daisuke Inoue, didn’t patent his groundbreaking device. As a result, he never earnt a penny from an industry that launched a million drunken nights out. How he could have done with the advice of an IP lawyer. If you think you could have helped Daisuke, here’s what you need to know.
Earlier this summer, one of the world’s longest running legal disputes ended when Apple and Samsung settled a patent battle that had started in 2011. Apple originally sued its South Korean competitor for $2bn in the US for (allegedly) ripping off the design of its smartphones and tablets.
This led to numerous trials in the US as well as further claims in at least nine jurisdictions around the world, including the UK. One can only imagine the number of lawyers globally with files marked ‘Apple v Samsung’ in their cabinets.
In legal terms, the case had everything: high-profile clients, large fees over several years, and interesting legal arguments about new technology that was changing the world.
Intellectual property law, once seen as a curious backwater, was suddenly front-page news. More than that, the case highlighted the role IP was playing as tech companies rocketed to the forefront of the business world.
IP is an exciting area to work in right now. And that’s not just because of London’s status as an international tech hub. Brands in every industry, from pharmaceuticals to sports to fashion to media all recognise the value that exists in their intellectual property and the need to protect it.
At this point, we should say what IP work covers. The definition includes patents, copyright, trademarks, designs, brands, data and confidential information.
A feature of the work is its variety. It includes not only acquiring and registering IP rights but commercial agreements relating to them (such as licensing agreements), as well as defending them or objecting to their use without consent. Some IP lawyers specialise in certain rights (patents litigation or copyright, for example) and others on non-contentious or contentious work. It’s a broad church and a typical IP lawyer will deal with any number of different issues and rights in any one day.
Due to its technical nature, it is an area that often attracts lawyers with a science or tech background. (It is worth pointing out here that Albert Einstein, although not a lawyer, worked in a patent office. It should also be said that he must have found his work pretty undemanding as the idea for his theory of relativity came to him while he was at work.)
IP issues can sometimes be highly complex and the nature of the work is constantly evolving. The ability to apply strong scientific or technical knowledge to legal issues is one that will always be in demand. Fintech, an area almost unheard of a few years ago is now on everyone’s lips and firms will need to rise to the legal IP challenges it throws up. Similarly, you would have had to be living under a rock earlier this year not to have seen the confusion surrounding the new data protection regulations (GDPR) and the onus this put on giving accurate legal advice.
In terms of skills, lawyers in the field will need rounded legal knowledge of tort, contract and competition law, as well as, needless to say, IP law. A strong second language can also be useful as many issues straddle jurisdictions. This can sometimes open up opportunities for IP lawyers to work abroad, with the US a frequent cross-over destination.
The ability to work in a team is a must as you are likely to be dealing with experts from different fields and with a variety of backgrounds.
In many ways, IP is seen as almost recession proof, and, some believe, Brexit-proof too. In previous downturns, companies have sought to exploit their IP rights and, at the same time, jealously protect their exploitation by third parties.