The arcane business of patent law, trademarks and copyrights might appear to be a field where few things change. But looks can be deceiving.

"It might seem there's not a lot happening," says Eric Robbins, leader of the intellectual property practice at the law firm of Ulmer & Berne LLP. "But things are always changing in all areas of intellectual property from patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrecy and data privacy."

In part, that reflects efforts to improve legal protection for the public and make sure that laws comply with standards around the world, he says. And technology is evolving.

"Particularly in the United States, we're a more service-based economy, a computer- and software- and methods-driven society than 50 years ago when we were a manufacturing society," Robbins says. "The types of things we seek to protect today are completely different."

Margaret Lawson, co-chair of the intellectual property practice at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, says with the Internet, companies are pursuing a worldwide audience and have to pay attention to not only U.S. rules on privacy and data security but those overseas as well.

"What we say is, if you are doing business abroad for example, running online contests and selling goods and collecting any kind of data, check with counsel in the local jurisdiction," she says. "Whereas 10 years ago, people wouldn't worry about that, now they do. They're paying attention to it, and investing resources in it."

The best advice for businesses is to be in compliance with the strictest privacy and data security regulations, she says. "Then you'll know you are in compliance everywhere else."

The biggest change in U.S. patent law in more than half a century, the America Invents Act (AIA), took full effect in March. It contains a number of changes, including the most significant: rules for obtaining a U.S. patent move from a "first to invent" standard to a "first to file."

"It's a pure race to the patent office," says Ryan Willis, a patent lawyer at Taft.

The new rule could have a huge impact on when and how new inventions come on the market.

Although it is a major change in the U.S., Steve Goldstein, vice chairman of the intellectual property practice at Frost Brown Todd LLC, says the rest of the world has operated with a "first to file" standard for a long time.

"It will probably have its biggest impact on smaller and medium-size inventors in the U.S. because they wouldn't necessarily be operating on that regime," he says. "If you're a big multinational company in the U.S., you're already operating on that standard based on what the rest of the world was doing."

The rationale for the AIA was to bring U.S. law in line with the rest of the world. But many analysts believe it will make it more difficult for small or solo inventors, who don't the have resources of big corporations, to seek patent protection.

"It used to be if you were a smaller company, and particularly if you were scratching around for money, you could sit back a little bit and wait until you got your money, knowing you had a well-documented early date of invention. Even if you weren't the first to file for a patent, you still could in the U.S., at least, prove you made the invention first. Well, that doesn't exist any more," Goldstein says.

In the days before the AIA went into effect March 16, there was a rush to file under the old regime.

"We saw a staggering number of filings in the last few days before the new law went into effect," says Robbins.

Willis doesn't think the AIA necessarily puts small inventors at a disadvantage.

"Individual inventors have the same issue they've always had," he says. "They have to invent first. It might take them longer, but they still have to invent first. Now the law says instead of having to invent first, you have to file first. I think it's one and the same."

There are ways small inventors can protect their rights under the new rules. One is to file a provisional patent application.

"It's a place-holder and there are few formal requirements," says Robbins. A provisional application costs less than a standard patent and can be prepared in a few hours. The applicant has a year from the provisional application to complete the full application.

"For technology startups, patents are frequently the most important asset they have," says Goldstein. "It's important to get them filed and do it cost effectively, and often further investments come based on the patents they have. We've had many startup clients where building the portfolio of patents was key to getting financing later."

There is also what's known as a Micro Entity Fee, aimed at small or first-time inventors that are just a fraction of the cost of regular patent filing fees.

Another new feature, known as a Track One Priority Designation, allows applicants to go to the head of the long line awaiting a patent review by paying a higher application fee. That can be valuable in the pharmaceutical and computer industries, in particular, where new innovations come on stream faster than patents are awarded.

The AIA also introduced virtual patent number marking at product websites rather on packaging or the products themselves. That's aimed at eliminating costly nuisance suits by third parties over incorrect or expired patent numbers on products. It also allows companies to update their patent markings without making expensive changes to their product dies or packaging.