Intellectual property, also referred to as IP, refers to broad property rights which are vested in the intangible. Property rights which are associated with real property, including land, and personal property, or everything else, are fairly straightforward.

Intellectual property, however, is materials or ideas which are protected by:

These types of property may include:

  • Client lists;
  • Poems;
  • Mechanical inventions; and
  • Logos.

The owners of these types of property have the right to:

  • Possess it;
  • Prevent other individuals from processing it; and
  • To preserve its integrity.

These rights for the basis of the laws prohibiting:

  • Theft;
  • Trespass; and
  • Vandalism.

Certain individuals should take steps to ensure that other individuals do not wrongfully profit from their original ideas, including:

  • Artists;
  • Inventors;
  • Scientists; or
  • Creators.

The legal system affords certain privileges and protections for inventors and owners of property through intellectual property laws. The laws governing Intellectual property are intended to encourage new:

  • Ideas;
  • Technologies;
  • Artistic creativity; and
  • Inventions for economic growth.

Individuals should be able to create these concepts and ideas with the confidence that their ideas and creative work will be protected. Intellectual property laws protect entities which do not have a physical form.

These may include logos and names which are attached to:

  • Products;
  • Inventions; and
  • Original works of authorship.

Due to the fact that no individual can physically possess these things, the laws that apply to personal property do not and cannot apply to intellectual property. In some circumstances, intellectual property laws may also protect secrecy.

Usually, individuals who first create or invent something are the owners of the intellectual property. Some employers, however, provide in the employment contracts that the employer will own what the employee creates on the job.

Additionally, the rights to intellectual property may be temporarily given away using a licensing agreement. Intellectual property theft occurs when an individual knowingly does any of the following with property which is protected under intellectual property laws:

  • Takes;
  • Uses;
  • Misappropriates; or
  • Otherwise steals.

Because there are numerous different types of intellectual property, there are also numerous variations of intellectual property theft. One example of intellectual property theft is when an individual knowingly copies the logo of a company and uses it on their own items without the consent of the company.

Another example may be when an employee takes the secret food recipe of a company and uses that to create their own food product.

How Do I Prove Theft of Intellectual Property?

If an individual believes their intellectual property rights have been infringed upon, it is very important to consult with a legal professional who can enforce intellectual property rights as well as assist with recouping any lost profits or business opportunities which have occurred. How to prove intellectual property theft has occurred will depend upon which type of intellectual property law was violated.

Stealing intellectual property may be proven in the following ways:

  • Proving that another entity is utilizing a trademark which is the same or very similar to an individual’s and establishing that the individual held the IP rights prior to the opposing parties;
  • Proving that another individual’s work that is being displayed, distributed, or reproduced was derived from the individual’s exclusively held copyrighted work and that consent was not provided by the individual, or IP owner, for its use;
  • If a patented idea or product is stolen, it is considered fraud. In these cases, it is important for an individual to prove that they were the first to file for the patent and, therefore, have exclusive rights for its distribution or sale; and
  • If an individual has ownership of a trade secret, they have the right to present legal reasoning which prevents another party from disclosing, profiting from, or using secretive IP information if a nondisclosure agreement was signed.

What Should I Do If I’m a Victim of Intellectual Property Crime?

If an individual believes that another individual is benefitting from the unauthorized use of their intellectual property, they should begin to document the suspected theft. The victim must establish that the offender had access to their work or information and take note of any times it is used.

The victim may provide proof in the form of samples of the copied information, screen captures, and any other available means. It is important to establish that the activity is, in fact, theft, and not fair use.

Fair use is is typically not considered theft in the eyes of the law for limited uses, such as:

  • Non-commercial;
  • Educational; or
  • Satirical.

It is important to carefully record how much the infringement is costing the victim. If an individual believes they are a victim of theft, it is in their best interest to contact an attorney as soon as possible who can provide more information and guide them through the process of bringing legal action against the offender.

What Are the Legal Consequences of Intellectual Property Theft?

There are various punishments for violating intellectual property rights. Intellectual property laws provide for harsh penalties for intellectual property theft.

In the majority of cases, intellectual property theft and infringement violations will be charged as federal crimes. A conviction may result in:

  • Criminal fines;
  • Imprisonment for several years, depending on the nature of the charges;
  • Seizure of the stolen property, documents, or materials;
  • Loss or suspension of a business operating license; and
  • Civil charges filed by the victim of the crime, for example, for lost business profits.

Are There Any Defenses to Intellectual Property Theft?

There are several defenses to intellectual property which may be available, including:

  • Lack of intent: The defendant did not knowingly stead or knowingly attempt to steal the plaintiff’s intellectual property and use to it for their personal gain;
  • Lack of ownership rights by the plaintiff: The material was not actually protected by intellectual property laws; or
  • Unclean hands: The plaintiff has engaged in wrongdoing by bringing a lawsuit in this manner against the defendant at the time, for example, knowing about the infringement for a long period of time but choosing not to sue the defendant until years after discovering the defendant’s first act of infringement.

There are also other, more technical defenses which may be available in certain cases. For example, a fair use defense may allow a defendant to avoid liability if their use of a copyrighted item was used for an educational purpose, for example, showing a copyrighted documentary to a high school history class.

Intellectual property cases may be highly complex and may require the assistance of an attorney and, in some cases, a products specialist.

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with Intellectual Property Theft Laws?

The laws governing intellectual property can be very complex and may impose strict penalties for violating those laws. If you have a question, concern, or dispute regarding an intellectual property issue, you may benefit from consulting with an intellectual property lawyer.

Your attorney will be able to explain the laws that govern and affect your case. As noted above, there are some limited circumstances in which IP may be used and considered fair use so it is important to have the expertise of an attorney who will be able to demonstrate when your IP is being stolen.

If you have to file a lawsuit to recover damages or are required to appear in court, your attorney will represent you during those appearances.