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A Brief Guide to Intellectual Property for IT Workers

Published on 09 October 20
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What is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property (IP) encompasses any creation or innovation resulting from the exercise of human intellect, like the code of a computer program or the graphic designs used in marketing materials. IP rights allow owners to exclude others from using the IP. An IP owner may also selectively authorize the use of their IP, for example, in exchange for licensing fees.

Consequently, understanding how to protect, enforce, and license your IP rights is instrumental in getting the most value out of the IP you own.

How Do IP Rights Apply to and Protect My Work?

Effectively leveraging your IP rights requires an understanding of the different types of IP protection available. The most important types of IP protection for those in the IT industry are patents, copyright, trademarks, and industrial designs.

Patents protect useful inventions that are new, not obvious, useful and of patentable subject matter. In the IT sector, patents can protect things like innovative software solutions for a technical problem or hardware that permits superior computing performance. Patent protection attaches to embodiments of the inventive idea underlying the software or hardware or system you develop and can be used to exclude competitors from trying to replicate this inventive aspect in their products and services from issuance of the patent to up to 20 years after filing the application.

Copyright protects creative works that are original and fixed in a medium. Copyright plays an important role in protecting computer code, since copyright registration of source or object code provides evidence of ownership. Your copyright can then be more easily enforced against anyone using your code without authorization by directing that party’s attention to your registered legal rights and demanding that they cease their unauthorized use or, if desired, pay you a licensing fee.

Trademarks protect the words, images and combinations of words and images used in association with your IT products and services, like a logo, slogan, or your business name. Trademark registration helps protect your brand against imitators that are looking to direct prospective customers away from your business and towards their own using confusingly similar words, images, or other branding elements.

Industrial design registration protects original visual features applied to a finished article. In the IT sector, registering an industrial design in the graphical user interface of an application or in the distinctive shape or configuration of a hardware product may help protect especially appealing aesthetic designs from competitors who want to use a substantially similar design.

In view of the different types of IP protection, it is especially important to speak to legal counsel about securing the broadest scope of legal protection possible. In this regard, finding legal professionals with experience both in the IP and IT sectors is invaluable, since how a legal instrument is drafted can directly impact the scope of your IP rights and maximizing the scope of legal protection afforded requires significant breadth and depth of legal and technical knowledge from the drafter.

Practical Considerations in Managing Your IP

Whether you are starting an IT business or looking to elevate your IT career and join a global industry projected to be worth $5.2 trillion, there are several practical matters worth considering if you have or anticipate developing IP.

If you are signing an employment agreement or working as an independent contractor, it is important to identify to what degree you will retain IP ownership in your work product. There are also legal obligations that automatically arise from employment which assign certain IP rights to an employer. This can be especially troublesome if you are independently developing IP that is similar to the type of IP you are under an obligation to assign to an employer or under contract, since such a party may claim entitlement to the IP.

Lastly, IT professionals are often sought out because they create high quality IP that an IT business wishes to use or acquire. The hiring or contracting decisions of IT companies may thus be influenced by whether a prospective hire wants to retain their IP interests in certain work products. As such, it is important to consider the commercial value of the IP you own or may create during employment or under contract and whether it is in your best interests to accept an offer that will assign your IP either in whole or in part to another party.

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