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Intellectual Property Lawyers: A Hot Legal Specialty

With so much information and knowledge out there, it’s getting trickier to protect your ideas from people who wish to misuse or steal them. That’s why intellectual property lawyers are a hot item in today's career market.

Simply put, intellectual property (IP) lawyers protect ideas. Today's knowledge-based economy has created plenty of opportunities in this field.

"As the technological sector has grown, so has both the law related to IP and the corresponding need for IP-savvy professionals and businesses," says Timothy J. Szuhaj. He's the chairman of the intellectual property group of a law firm. "In short, the field is in for steady growth in the foreseeable future."

Intellectual property law is a broad area. Basically, this kind of law allows individuals and organizations to protect abstract things like knowledge and ideas. That's according to law professor Eric Menkhus.

Menkhus explains that there are four main types of intellectual property law: patent, copyright, trademark and trade secret laws. Each of these areas protects a different type of asset.

"For example, if I write a book, I can use copyright laws to keep others from making copies of the book, distributing them, and selling or giving them away," says Menkhus. "Or if I discover a cure for liver cancer, I can use patent protection to keep others from making, using, selling, importing and conducting other activities with the drug."

Although both of these examples are simple, they get to the heart of what intellectual property law is about -- "excluding others from doing something," says Menkhus.

Intellectual property law is the cornerstone of the knowledge-based economy of the Western world, says Michael Erdle. He's president of a professional association of patent agents, trademark agents and IP lawyers.

"Patent and trade secrets provide the legal framework for innovation in areas such as biotechnology and health care, as well as computers, the Internet, science and engineering," Erdle says. "Meanwhile, the arts and entertainment fields depend on copyright to protect the rights of creators and distributors."

Both Erdle and Menkhus agree that IP law is a growing field.

"Intellectual property lawyers are in higher demand as our economy relies more and more on intellectual property protections, and less on the traditional protections of tangible property law," Menkhus says.

He explains that patent lawyers are in the highest demand right now, both because it's a hot area in today's world and because only people with a technical background can become patent attorneys.

"Good patent attorneys can be hard to find, and are critical contributors to companies achieving their financial goals," Menkhus says. "Well-written patents provide both a barrier to entry to competitors and an offensive 'whip' that can be cracked against infringers [those whose go against regulations]."

The growth of technology has spurred demand for IP lawyers, Szuhaj says.

"Technology is adding to and changing the body of IP law," he says. Also, technology is making it easier to break IP laws.

The growth of technology has also blurred the line between the different types of IP protections, Menkhus says. "Historically, it was fairly easy to [distinguish] between what types of protections applied to certain items," he says. "Songs, performances and works of art were the domain of copyright law. Logos and words associated with a company were trademark protected."

But recent technological developments have complicated matters.

"Within one software program, both the object and source code are protected by copyright. Processes performed by the software can be patented, and other items may be protected using trade secret protections," Menkhus says. "It's difficult to tell where one type of protection ends and another begins."

The increasingly global nature of business is another factor in the growing need for IP lawyers.

"The U.S. is outsourcing much of what has traditionally been the backbone of the economy -- manufacturing jobs," Menkhus says. Many of these jobs are being sent overseas, leaving companies in North America to manage their operations from a distance.

"What do these firms use to protect their ideas, institutional knowledge and customer contacts? Intellectual property protections," says Menkhus.

In a global economy, every country's approach to intellectual property matters, says lawyer Charmaine Cheung. In the past, many foreign governments didn't value intellectual property. But that's begun to change, she adds.

"However they continue to treat the value of intellectual property will have an effect on IP law, not just in those regions but also [internationally]," she says.

The nature of IP law will continue to change with changes in business, technology and trade. But with more and more ideas to protect, those trained in this area of law will continue to be in demand. "Intellectual property law is constantly evolving, but it's not going anywhere," Cheung says.


Is a Career in Intellectual Property Law for You?
Learn more about the field

American Intellectual Property Law Association
Organization for intellectual property lawyers

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