Many an inventor has walked into David Lafkas’ patent law office with what he’s sure is a billion-dollar idea.

But as Lafkas is quick to point out, the eureka moment that spawned the innovation is no guarantee that the inventor will be the one to cash in on the idea.

Piracy and theft are rife in today’s internet-connected and globalized economy, posing myriad dangers for researchers, inventors and any other professional with a marketable new concept. That’s where Intellectual Property law comes in, the best defense for those with a winning business model to protect what’s theirs.
Intellectual property consists of patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. Patents and trademarks are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Copyrights are registered with, you guessed it, the U.S. Copyright Office.

Patents are granted for new, useful and non-obvious inventions for 20 years. Copyrights protect books, movies, and musical recordings, among other works of authorship, for the life of the author plus 70 years.

Trademarks last indefinitely.

Trade secrets are trickier because they are not registered. Whether it’s the formula for Coca-cola or the recipe for Skyline Chili, confidentiality agreements and constant vigilance of competitors are the keys to protecting the product.

Theft costs rightful owners of intellectual property an estimated $250 billion and 750,000 jobs annually, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which says multi-national and one-person home businesses alike are victimized.

“It has never been more essential for you to consider patenting your idea or registering your name as a trademark, especially if you are a small business owner or are starting a small business,” according to the USPTO website.

Ken Germain leads the Trademark practice in the Cincinnati office of Thompson Hine LLP and runs a popular annual seminar on intellectual property.

“In our modern world, intellectual property, meaning intangible things, are the most important things companies have,” he says. Germain has seen globalization and technology change the intellectual property law field rapidly over the more than 30 years he has worked in it. “It’s a lot more complicated and a lot more expensive. Law differs all over the place. When you’re talking about a whole globe you’re talking about big stuff.”

Piracy runs rampant in China, where U.S. trade negotiators continue to press for much tougher enforcement.

“Intellectual property is hard to enforce in China. The mobility of businesses is just incredible over there,” says David Stallard, a partner at Wood, Herron & Evans who has practiced intellectual property law there for 37 years.

He added that discount patent lawyers in India have created new headaches for intellectual property owners through incomplete or inaccurate patent, trademark and copyright work.

Intellectual property is now recognized as a critical engine for the Greater Cincinnati and U.S. economy.

Stallard pointed to The Ocean Tomo 300 Patent Growth Index, which selects 60 stocks on the basis of the value of their intellectual property. The index has consistently outperformed the S&P 500 and other indices in recent years.

“The financial industry understands that intellectual property is being recognized as a major new asset class,” he says.

Anne H. Chasser, associate vice president for technology transfer and commercialization at the University of Cincinnati Intellectual Property Office, says innovation would be virtually impossible without strong intellectual property rights.

“It’s critically important. If you’re not able to protect your discovery, be it a molecule or a process or an imaging agent, then you have all of these resources invested in the discovery that you can’t really license it to a third party,” she says.

Security is needed to take the risk at developing new products and technology, she says. “It can take anywhere from seven to 11 years from the time of discovery to reaching the market and up to $2 billion investment for drugs. There is high risk and high reward, and you have a lot of failures along the way,” Chasser observes.

Intellectual property has generated nearly $40 million for UC through licensing since the Intellectual Property Office was created about 25 years ago.

With manufacturing shifting to China and other countries, ideas are critical to the U.S. economy, Chasser says. “(Intellectual property) is the capital and the strongest asset that the U.S. and UC possess,” she notes.

Wood, Herron & Evans is a local powerhouse of patent, trademark and copyright law, with 46 attorneys, a patent agent and five illustrators among 109 employees. The law firm is the last original tenant of the Carew tower, but the historic building is an upstart compared to the firm, which was founded in 1868.

Kathryn E. Smith, a third-generation Wood, Herron & Evans attorney, says the Internet has revolutionized  intellectual property law by making it easier to protect claims.

“Before the Internet, you would have to visit every mom-and-pop shop across the country for enforcement. Now, you open their web site and there it is. It’s a great research tool for usage,” she says.

Tricks of the trade such as web crawler programs make sure the use of a trademarked or copyrighted product is properly licensed and paid royalties.

Kevin G. Rooney, a Wood, Herron & Evans attorney, says the global marketplace adds pressure for business owners to get their product on the web quickly.

Rushing a product to market before it is properly registered is one of the big mistakes entrepreneurs make, he notes.

John Mueller, a partner in Taft, Stettinius and Hollister's business and finance department who works on patent and trademark law, says unscrupulous businesses can emerge anywhere in the world. “Clearly, an entrepreneur in Nigeria has little to no concern over intellectual property rights they are trouncing in the United States, or any thought of being prosecuted,” he says.

But mechanisms are in place to wrest stolen domain names, for example, from international thiefs, Mueller says. One cost-efficient route is the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy, which employs an arbitrator to settle trademark infringement cases. A successful prosecution can result in the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) transferring control of a domain name to the rightful owner. Mueller says Taft is seeing an increase in business among small- to medium-sized companies that want to avoid being ensnared in patent and trademark disputes.

The experts had plenty of advice for those with a great idea or product that needs to be protected.

“Document your work, and get to a patent attorney as soon as you can for advice on how to proceed,” Rooney says.

Top issues to start are how to keep the idea or product secret, to lay out costs and to begin the lengthy procedure of establishing a patent, trademark or copyright that will stick.

“If you want to practice your innovation, you will have to go through a patent search. If you find a problematic patent publication, you want to do that before the client spends a lot of money,” Rooney says.

Smith advised innovators to do their homework and to not believe common urban legends. “Everybody seems to believe that if you mail your idea to yourself across state lines that that establishes protection. Wrong,” she remarks.

David Lafkas pointed out the same misconception, which he has had to correct with clients.

Rooney says to work quickly at getting an innovation protected. “Put the stake in the sand before you get to the trade show,” he advised.

Stallard says the process has to revolve around bottom-line value. “We like to know how our client is going to benefit. That is the underlying goal,” he says.

For trade secrets, tell as few people as possible, Lafkas advises, and sign confidentiality agreements with those in the know.

And, Lafkas adds: document, document, document.

“I’ve actually seen patent cases turn on inventors writing everything down properly,” he says.

James Crossett, a Wood, Herron and Evans administrator, says Greater Cincinnati entrepreneurs have the chance to capitalize on the growing significance of intellectual property in business.

“Cincinnati is behind the times compared to a Silicon Valley. There is a big opportunity to wed venture capital with ideas generated by inventors."