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What Does an Intellectual Property Lawyer Do?

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  • Originally Written By: B. C. C.
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 02 December 2016
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An intellectual property lawyer can do a range of different things, but the job usually revolves around protecting, challenging, or analyzing patents, trademarks, and copyrights. These rights are intangible and are often though of as issues of “creative ownership.” The field is a very broad one, encompassing everything from the rights to song lyrics and poems to Internet domain names, the proprietary interests of content posted online, and the use of trademarks and protected symbols in advertising. Most of the time, professionals in the field choose one or two areas of specialty and become experts on those nuanced topics. Many lawyers work for firms that have been retained to work directly with intellectual property owners. They can also work for governments or corporations, and many also have more analytical roles in a variety of companies.

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Understanding Intellectual Property Generally

Intellectual property consists of both intangible and tangible works of the human mind. These works are most often produced by artists, inventors, scientific and medical institutions, and business corporations. There are three primary types of intellectual property. Patents cover processes and methods, and are most commonly used to protect the manufacturing strategies of things like pharmaceutical drugs and electronic equipment, though things like hybrid seed germination and certain agricultural products can also be covered. Trademarks protect the brand names and identifying features of companies engaged in commerce, and copyrights are usually understood to cover any work that is “fixed in a tangible medium,” be it written or otherwise recorded, and provide creators with retaliation against anyone who copies or otherwise repurposes that work, within certain limitations.

In general, an intellectual property lawyer provides legal assistance to artists, inventors, and others who need help managing their published and unpublished work. Sometimes they work to help content owners secure rights to keep themselves protected, but they can also work to help defend rights that already exist. They may file infringement suits, for instance, or challenge applications that may be infringing. Still others work in governments and regulatory agencies helping to shape the scope of the law or analyzing applications as they come in.

Areas of Specialty

In part because of how broad the field is, lawyers typically specialize in just one area. Much of this specialization is usually a matter of experience, and normally has to be honed over time. While it’s sometimes possible for a single attorney to handle all of a given client’s intellectual property needs, it’s much more common to find lawyers who deal exclusively with only certain rights in certain arenas. In the right market an attorney can craft an entire career around online gaming copyrights, for instance, whereas another might focus exclusively on defending pharmaceutical patents. The skills required to do each are not interchangeable.

Types of Work Setting

The specifics of an intellectual property lawyer’s day to day life are often driven at least in part by the work setting. Many of these professionals work in law firms on teams devoted to one or more issues. Others can work directly for clients as solo practitioners or as staff attorneys within the legal division of a company or business. There are also a number of jobs for people with this sort of training in government agencies and law enforcement bureaus. Practice isn’t always directly required, either.

Analysis is another option, and lawyers in this arena usually spend most of their time studying cases that have been decided and using precedent to draw conclusions about the future of the intellectual property landscape with respect to some specific topic.

Getting Started in the Field

Education is one of the most important prerequisites for this job. With few exceptions, attorneys need both an undergraduate degree and a law degree, and in most cases also have to be licensed in he jurisdiction in which they practice. Licensure is usually determined by a candidate’s ability to pass what’s known as a bar exam, but even this doesn’t guarantee a job in most cases. New lawyers usually need to be prepared to start out at the bottom of the career ladder, often working on files that lack the profile and “zing” of the most famous and entertaining cases that draw many people into the intellectual property field to begin with. With time and experience usually comes more control, at least when it comes to choosing cases and more intentionally shaping career trajectory.

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