If you'd like to help someone protect their innovations, creative ideas, or inventions, a career in intellectual property law might suit you. It is one of the fastest growing and exciting areas of law to explore.
Hundreds of creators make patent applications each day. Some don't know what the law says or how to go about filing. You could be the one offering guidance, helping them file applications or trademark protection, and negotiating licenses with vendors.
Before we look at the steps to becoming an intellectual property lawyer, we will look at intellectual property and law briefly.
What is Intellectual Property?
Intellectual property refers to any creation of the mind. It could be a business idea, song, or artworks such as paintings or sketches, among many others. As long as the product or idea is unique and not based on another work, we can consider it as intellectual property.
Once a work is registered as intellectual property, no one can use it in any way without direct or indirect approval of the creator. For example, YouTube, iTunes, and other marketplace restrictions on content (videos, photos, and music). To use them, you have to seek the permission of the owner or give them credit in the case of pictures.
What is Intellectual Property Law?
Intellectual property law is an area of law that seeks to protect the legal rights of creatives or inventors. It governs who may use creations such as new products, designs, or artistic works. The basic premise is that any patented, copyrighted, or trademarked goods and services cannot be used, reproduced, or distributed without the directed authorization of the owner. The aim is to ensure originators benefit from their work.
Different Types of Intellectual Property Rights
A copyright is a legal term that describes the rights a creator has over their literary works. We're talking about writers, musicians, and poets, among other artists. Some of the creative works that copyright protects include books, novels, paintings, technical drawings and writings, mobile and computer software, ads, and databases, and other similar works. Copyrighted works are often identified by the Copywrite symbol, a c inside a circle, somewhere easily seen with the work, such as in the footer area of a website or the back cover of a textbook.
A patent refers to the right an innovator or inventor has over a product or the whole process of doing something. In short, a patent covers innovation, invention, or refinement of an existing or new product or process. When applying for patent protection, the technical process used to create your product, or the technical specifications must be clearly shown. This documentation enables government officials to determine the nature of the invention and who has rights over it. Bear in mind that a patent has a life span of 20 years in the US. Once the patent expires, the owner no longer has exclusive rights over it.
A trademark protects products, brands, or businesses. A good example is the Apple logo. This logo is trademarked by Apple and can't be used by other companies or on products without Apple's approval. Very similar logos could also lead to legal challenges. Property rights protect these trademarks as the intellectual property of the respective enterprises, products, or brands. Once a trademark is registered, it becomes the intellectual property of the filer unless they decide to sell their rights over it.
Trade Secrets Rights
A trade secret is a plan, recipe, or ingredient that can give a company's product an advantage over its competitors' products. Unlike a patent, a company has the right to keep the formula or process of making a product secret. If a competitor uses the trade secret without the owner's permission, the owner can file damages. Coca-Cola has been in business for many years. The reason they are successful is that cola, one of the most popular beverages in the US, is made using a secret formula. Coca-Cola has gone to great lengths to keep that formula a secret, and it also happens to be protected under Trade Secret rights.
Trade Dress Rights
A trade dress right refers to a manufacturer's right to package their product in a specific way. It is one of the hardest rights to secure. The reason is a business must prove how packaging the product in a particular way impacts how buyers view the product. They need to show the aesthetic appeal over the functionality of the packaging. Again, Coca-Cola can be used as an example here. The distinct glass bottle shape they use for their products is covered under trade dress rights as it serves no functional purpose—soda can be placed in any bottle shape— and is unique to cola, similar to a logo.
Plant Variety Intellectual Property Rights
Most farmers can attest to the fact that there are a ton of plant varieties out there. Different manufacturers spend a whole lot of money and time trying to improve plant species and cultivars for maximum growth and production. The plant variety right ensures that they get control over the growth of their plants as well as the plant materials. Owners have a right over the planting as well as the distribution of the plant variety. They can either grow the plant themselves or give a license for others to produce them.
Industrial Design Intellectual Property Rights
While a patent works on an actual product, some manufacturers or creatives instead come up with a master plan to solve a particular problem without implementing it. These are known as industrial designs. Such drawings are also protected under industrial design rights as the intellectual property of the designer.
Is Intellectual Property Law Universal?
One of the biggest headaches that intellectual property lawyers face is protecting the intellectual property of their clients overseas. The reason is different countries have different laws governing intellectual property. In recent times, there has been a concerted effort to harmonize intellectual property laws across different countries to create International Intellectual Property law.
However, with the changes in technology, it has become even more complicated to enforce some intellectual property laws. Getting details of the individuals breaching the law is almost always an impossible task over the internet. Plus, some countries have deplorable intellectual property laws.
Should I become an Intellectual Property Lawyer?
Yes, intellectual property lawyers are some of the most sought-after professionals. You can practice on your own or get hired by an intellectual property agency or a corporate firm. If you're ethical and competent, you will always have a ton of clients streaming into your office seeking your services.
Manufacturers need corporate lawyers to protect their products from infringement. These lawyers ensure competitors are not infringing on their company's intellectual rights. Since intellectual property lawsuits can cost billions of dollars in litigation fees and compensations, every manufacturer should have an intellectual property lawyer in their payroll.
Creatives also need intellectual property lawyers to protect their products and services. IP lawyers will prosecute where others infringe on their copyright, trademark, or patents.
As you can see, there is a demand for intellectual property lawyers.
How to Become an Intellectual Property Lawyer
Chances are you want to pursue a career in intellectual property law, but like many greenhorns, don't know where to start. Don't worry. We've outlined the steps you ought to follow to become an intellectual property lawyer.
Step 1: Get a Bachelor's Degree
The first step towards getting into a law school is to have a bachelor's degree. It doesn't matter what undergraduate degree program you take; law schools are not that fussy about the major you have. However, they tend to lean more towards majors in business administration, political science, and legal studies.
If you already have a specific category of intellectual property law you want to specialize in, you can choose a degree program that augurs well with the type. For anyone interested in copyright, you can take an arts degree, music, English, or creative writing. The idea is to have something that complements the area you have chosen.
On the other hand, for someone going for patent law, a degree in any science or engineering field is required. If you don't have those two majors, you must demonstrate the ability to write as well as read technical writings.
For trademarks, a business degree is all you need. Most clients looking for trademark lawyers are usually businesses and enterprises. A business studies major will allow you to easily connect with small as well as large companies without any problems.
The same case applies to the other intellectual property law categories. A major in the field you are interested in allows you to have a better understanding of your client's needs.
Step 2: Maintain a High GPA
Law school is quite competitive. Compared to other disciplines, law schools receive thousands of applications from prospective students. The only way to ensure you are among the top of the list is to get high GPA scores. There are no two ways here about it.
Besides the GPA, specific disciplines within intellectual property law require you to have at least a C in the sciences. This might prove that you have excellent technical training and can keep your head afloat when you navigate the murky waters of patent and trademark infringement.
Step 3: Take the LSAT Exam
Every ABA-compliant law school will need your LSAT score before they can admit you. So you have to prepare for and sit the LSAT exam. This exam assesses your ability to read and your reasoning prowess. It usually comprises of five multiple-choice sections and an essay.
The best way to ensure you get the most out of your LSAT exam is to find out the minimum LSAT score for the school you want and work towards getting the right score. There are a ton of resources that can help you improve your LSAT score. These include private tutors or just online research and study. Whenever you are taking your practice questions, make sure you factor in the time. Each LSAT section takes about thirty-five minutes.
Step 4: Get a Law Degree
The most crucial step towards becoming an intellectual property lawyer is getting your law degree. While the school you go to greatly matters, it makes sense to apply to law schools where you have a higher chance at acceptance. Ivy league schools have a very competitive application process because of the high number of applications they receive.
In your first year of study, you will get an introduction to the basics of law such as constitutional, property, tort, contract. These subjects will help lay a good foundation of law, and make it easy to transition into profound concepts in your second and third years as well as practical aspects such as judicial internships and fieldwork.
Depending on the law school you wish to enroll in, you may, at this point, concentrate on intellectual property law. Some of the courses you may take include drafting intellectual property licenses, biotech laws, copyrights, and unfair trade competition, plus patent prosecutions.
If you want to take it a notch higher, you can choose elective units like licensure of intellectual property rights and international intellectual property rights. Some specialties provide students with opportunities to complete an internship, do independent research, or research assistantships in intellectual property law.
Whichever path you choose, it is crucial to maintain a high GPA even in law school. The internships provide excellent groundwork for building connections and ensuring you get proper hands-on experience.
Step 5: Get Licensing by Sitting for a State Bar Exam
Once you obtain your law degree, you will not be allowed to practice until you get a license. You can only do so after you pass the state bar exam. Every state in the US has this requirement.
Aside from taking the bar exam, you will also need to take a professional responsibility exam as well as obtain admission to the state bar association. Bear in mind that there is no standard state bar exam. They vary from one state to another. State bar examinations generally seek to determine your grasp of state plus national laws. The test may take a couple of days and include several multiple-choice sections.
Preparation is key. Don't worry if you flop as you can retake the test. If you feel you need help polishing a few areas before sitting for the state bar exam, there are a ton of prep courses to help with preparation. If you think that you are well prepared already, register, and book a date and location for the exam.
Step 6: Sit for The USPTO exam
The state bar exam is not the end of the road, either. There's one more hurdle to jump before you can start practicing—the USPTO (US Patents and Trademark Office) exam. Proof that you have an undergrad degree is required to take this exam.
Step 7: Practice as an Intellectual Property Lawyer
Just as is the case with other fields, experience pays when it comes to practicing intellectual property law. Devote your time to sharpening your skills. An excellent way to do this is to intern at an established law firm. You will learn a lot and benefit from the mentorship of seniors in the law firm. Once you feel ready to go out, you can start your own law firm, go into private practice, or join an existing firm.
Becoming a Top Intellectual Property Lawyer
As you immerse yourself into intellectual property law, you will come to appreciate how invaluable a Master of Law (LLM) is to your career prospects. Many employers prefer hiring LLM graduates with a mix of real-world experience, professional acumen, and strong academic credentials. Getting a master's degree in intellectual property law will give you a competitive edge and boost your resume.
Once you get a license, you should enroll for a Master of Law in Intellectual Property Law. Many law schools offer LLM programs. You will get an in-depth insight into the field of intellectual property law. Some of the courses you might want to include in your studies are International Intellectual Property Law, Telecommunication Law, Cyber Law, Trademark, Trade Secret, and Patent law, among others. In some cases, you will need to write a thesis.
One thing to note is that intellectual property law tends to change often. As an intellectual property lawyer, you will need to continually keep yourself abreast with all the changes in the field to better represent your clients. If you can quickly grasp technical specifications or language in any area, you will have a significant advantage in both the corporate as well as individual sectors.
Grab the chance, get an education and training, obtain a license, then start practicing. Who knows? Within a few years, you could be a highly sought-after lawyer in the area of intellectual property law. Good luck!