The term intellectual property, or IP, refers to broad property rights that are vested in the intangible. Owners of these types of property have the right:
- To possess it;
- To prevent other individuals from possessing it; and
- To preserve its integrity.
This forms the basis of laws against:
- Trespass; and
- Vandalism of intellectual property.
Intellectual property law governs copyright laws, patent laws, and trademark laws. Working with an intellectual property attorney can help a creator protect their work and provide them peace of mind that their work will not be copied or used by another person, without first providing them with compensation.
Additionally, each state may have its own specific intellectual property laws and codes. An example of this would be how Montana intellectual property law is specifically addressed in the Montana Code Annotated.
The legal system provides privileges and protections for owners and inventors of property through intellectual property laws. The purpose of intellectual property law is to encourage new ideas, technologies, artistic creativity, and inventions for economic growth, with the confidence that their creative work and ideas will be protected at the legal level.
To reiterate, intellectual property laws protect entities that do not have a physical form. This may include:
- Names and logos which are attached to products;
- Inventions; and
- Original works of authorship.
Because no individual can physically possess these things, the laws which apply to personal property cannot and do not apply to intellectual property. Because of this issue, intellectual property laws generally protect the exclusive rights to use or reproduce the intellectual property, rather than its actual possession. Additionally, intellectual property laws may sometimes protect secrecy.
Generally speaking, the person who first created or invented something is considered to be the owner of the intellectual property. However, some employers state in their employment contracts that the employer owns what the employees create on the job. As was previously mentioned, the rights to intellectual property may be given away temporarily by using a licensing agreement.
What Is Infringement?
Intellectual property infringement refers to the unauthorized use, reproduction, and/or sale of materials that are registered for protection under intellectual property laws. These protected materials generally include:
- Materials; and/or
- Works that have been registered under copyright, trademark, or patent laws.
Infringement laws are especially important because they help protect creators of original work from the unauthorized use or access to their creations. While definitions may vary depending on the subject matter, infringement generally requires proof that:
- The victim owned the rights to a valid copyright, trademark, or patent;
- The infringer had access to the protected work;
- The infringer exploited their access to or used the protected work without authorization from the original creator; and
- There are no applicable exceptions to the unauthorized use of the material.
More specifically, trademark infringement is the unauthorized use or reproduction of a trademark, such as a logo or brand symbol, and is similar to service mark infringement. An example of this would be when clothing manufacturers attach brand labels to generic items, attempting to have them pass as being authentic. Trademark infringement violations are serious, and often involve aspects of deceptive trade practices.
Patent infringement is the unauthorized manufacture, use, sale, or importation of a patented invention. Whether someone infringed on your patent will largely depend on the scope of the claims of your patent; because the claims define your invention, they also define the scope of protection that your invention receives. In order to infringe on your patent, an invention must infringe on every claim that is made in your patent. In order to determine whether a new invention infringes on your patent, you must go through two steps:
- You must determine the scope and meaning of the claims in your patent; and
- You must determine if the new invention infringes on those claims.
Legal penalties for copyright infringement generally include:
- Civil damages in the exact amount of the damages and lost profits;
- Injunctions in order to prevent the infringer from continuing their illegal activities;
- Impoundment or confiscation of the infringing works;
- A prison sentence; and
- Mandatory payment of court and attorney fees by the defendant.
Penalties for trademark and patent infringement specifically may follow similar guidelines. Penalties will depend on several determining factors, including:
- Applicable state and federal laws;
- The nature of the infringing activities; and
- The amount of losses suffered by the plaintiff.
Is Infringement Considered To Be A Criminal Charge?
In some cases, infringement can result in federal criminal charges, such as serving prison time or facing other criminal penalties. Federal and state laws are considerably strict regarding the protection of intellectual property.
Courts may also impose punitive damages on top of the general damages award. However, this is often limited to double or treble damages; or, twice or three times the amount of the base economic damages award. These can be imposed in cases involving intentional disregard of intellectual property protections and laws.
A plaintiff who is seeking double or treble damage must claim the award in their initial complaint with the court. What this means is that the plaintiff is considered to have waived their right to double or treble damage if they did not specifically request it in their complaint, or in a motion early on in trial.
It is essential to claim these damage amounts early on, as double and treble damages sometimes allow the victim to bypass statutory limits on the total amount that they can recover. Whether a plaintiff can receive double or treble damages depends on the following factors:
- Statutes: The plaintiff’s request for double or treble damages must be supported by a statute, as not all states have double or treble damage statutes. If the state does not have such a statute, it is likely that the victim will not be able to obtain them;
- Request: To reiterate, double and treble damages are not required, and will only be granted if specifically requested; and
- Wrongdoing: Most jurisdictions require proof of the defendant’s intentional wrongdoing; meaning, the defendant must have acted purposely in harming the plaintiff. The defendant’s intent can be determined based on their negligence, recklessness, or carelessness.
Because double and treble damages generally require intentional wrongdoing on the part of the defendant, they are classified as punitive damages, rather than general or compensatory damages. These damages serve the purpose of punishing the defendant, rather than compensating the plaintiff for losses. As such, the plaintiff must fulfill all of the requirements associated with punitive damage awards.
Many states place a limit on the amount of damages that a plaintiff may be awarded, such as in a medical malpractice lawsuit. In these states, damage awards may not exceed the stated limits, even if a judge awards a double or treble damages award.
States that enforce limits for medical malpractice damage awards include:
- Michigan; and
It is important to note that statutes covering double and treble damages may be subject to change.
Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With Infringement Penalties?
You should hire an intellectual property lawyer if you are facing any legal claims involving infringement laws. Your attorney can help research the local laws in order to determine what legal rights and options you have.
Additionally, an experienced intellectual property attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed, should legal action become necessary.