For attorneys who specialize in intellectual property law, the information age is the gift that keeps on giving. Digital content, smartphone apps, and e-books aren’t just changing the nature of consumerism; they’re also rapidly altering how society defines ownership.
In the 21st-century marketplace, intangible products are a driving force. And for the innovators behind them, legal rights come in the form of patents, copyrights, trademarks, and licensing. Among the companies at the forefront of this brave new world of IP protection is one that made a name for itself more than thirty years ago.
Microsoft established instant brand recognition in the 1980s with its MS-DOS and, later, its Windows operating systems. It has since expanded its reach to include software, such as the ubiquitous Microsoft Office Suite; hardware, like its signature curved keyboard; and home-entertainment devices, such as Xbox 360, which to date has sold more than 40 million units.
It’s no wonder then that with its wide-ranging tech and computing products, the Redmond, Washington-based technology giant is constantly searching for ways to protect its creative processes. That’s where an experienced legal team comes in—especially IP attorneys, whose specialized background and passion for technology are invaluable assets.
“Intellectual property law is a broad term,” says Microsoft senior attorney Elke Suber, whose specialty is copyright law. “It includes several different areas: copyright law, which protects, among other things, books, software, and movies; trademark law, which protects your right to use a name for a product, a business, or tagline; design rights, which protect logos, like the ‘FB’ that belongs to Facebook; and patent law, which involves helping clients protect rights to an invention. Another related area is trade secrets, which protect information that is kept as a closely held secret within a company, like the formula for Coca-Cola.”
A MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL RELATIONSHIP
New developments in technology regularly call for an examination of the legal principles that govern them. It’s a dynamic, reciprocal relationship that changes with each innovation. The one constant, however, is that innovation fuels the growth of IP law, and the growth of IP law in turn encourages the creative process. When people know their ideas will be protected, they’re more apt to pursue them.
A look at the numbers presents a clear picture of this dynamic at work. Within the last 20 years, patent litigation has increased by a whopping 230% in the United States.1 The worldwide number of patent, trademark, and copyright applications filed has been on an upward trend since 1998, with the exception of the last two years, when it dipped slightly in response to the global economic crisis.2
“Companies are reducing their exposure to patent litigation by strengthening their patent portfolios and entering into license agreements with patent owners,” shares Sade Fashokun, a former Microsoft product specialist who recently finished law school and landed a position as a patent attorney at the company. “On the patent side, there are a number of options for people to pursue, such as patent prosecution, litigation, or licensing.”
Yet, as is the case with other specialized legal practices, and the profession as a whole, women and diverse attorneys represent a minority within IP. Some, like Cindy Jones, a patent agent at Microsoft who is currently pursuing her law degree at Seattle University School of Law, suspect the main reason for the dearth is a lack of exposure. “I came to Microsoft twelve years ago as a developer,” Jones explains. “A few years ago, I had a friend move over to the patent group, and I asked him what the job was about. When he told me, I thought, ‘This sounds pretty interesting.’ I was looking for something new to do, and I loved the work and learning new skills. Then one day, I realized that all of my work was going through a patent attorney—and always would, if I remained a patent agent. I don’t like ceilings, and I had thought about getting my JD, so I decided to go to law school.”
Suber attributes the low numbers of women and diverse attorneys to a widely held belief that a technical degree is necessary to be proficient in all aspects of IP. Although a technical degree is required for patent attorneys, as is taking the patent bar, that isn’t so for those who pursue copyright or trademark law.
“I developed my expertise from working, learning from senior attorneys, and taking continuing legal education classes,” explains Suber. “I tell young lawyers if they’re interested in movies or music, learn about copyright law, and if they’re interested in technology, then it might be a good idea to take a patent class and consider patent law.”
With its vast network of resources, Microsoft holds a number of events, such as its Women & Minority Law Student IP Summit, which are designed to promote careers in intellectual property and to encourage women and minority law students to enter the field. Suber, who is part of the company’s diversity team, has been involved with the summit almost every year for the last three years, since it began over six years ago.
She asserts that the event is notable because it is entirely volunteer-driven (as are Microsoft’s other diversity outreach efforts). In-house attorneys, paralegals, and partner firms help select people to participate in panel discussions, in addition to contributing funds to secure space so students can attend free of charge.
The one-day summit, typically held each fall, rotates to different geographic regions each year to reach the largest number of students possible. Past locations have included Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. This year’s location had not been finalized as this issue went to press, but Suber reveals that it will likely be held in the southern region of the country.
“We’ll reach out to career planning offices, as well as to law school deans,” she shares of Microsoft’s efforts to increase awareness about the summit. “Last year, we sent out fliers and posted information on social networking sites. We also coordinate with minority and women bar associations, such as Ms. JD, the National Black Law Student Association, and the Hispanic law student associations. And even though its title specifies women and minorities, we also reach out to gay and lesbian students.”
NURTURING HOME-GROWN TALENT
Perhaps equally important to connecting with students is developing staff who may also be interested in making the leap to IP. Fashokun and Jones both share that Microsoft granted them flexible working schedules so they could attend law school. Jones, who expects to graduate in December, adds that she’s even been given time off to take the bar and to complete an externship with Washington’s attorney general. “I have to say that Microsoft has been tremendously supportive of me making this move,” she reveals. “I was a developer, and I knew nothing about legal. I had an opportunity to do something new, and I was encouraged to pursue it.”
Since deciding to enroll in law school, Jones has been tapped by the company to participate in several panel discussions for Inspiring Girls Now in Technology Evolution (IGNITE), an organization that encourages high school girls to consider careers in technology. The girls, who come from area public schools, take a tour of Microsoft’s campus and get a chance to shadow female employees. “It has definitely been rewarding,” she proclaims.
For fellow IP newcomer Fashokun, “being able to pursue a career in IP law that makes use of my technical background” has been well worth the investment of attending law school. She’d like to see Microsoft reach out to undergraduate women pursuing science-related degrees, as well as others like her who may be mid-level professionals. “I think going to engineering schools and letting women know of law as a career option would be another avenue to pursue. This is a second career for me, and I didn’t know of this particular area until I spoke to the attorneys here. We should be trying to reach people at different points—from the high-school level to law school, and people who are already in the workforce.”
After more than three decades, it appears that Microsoft has no plans to give up its position as an industry leader when it comes to diversity and innovative technology. And as IP continues to expand, Suber suspects that the company will only strengthen its reputation.
“Microsoft wants to represent the diversity of the population,” she concludes. “We’re interested in being inclusive, and we’re looking to include women and ethnic minorities, as well as attorneys with different backgrounds. We want people from various communities to consider careers in IP.” DB
Chana Garcia is a freelance writer, editor, and blogger based in New York City.
From the July/August 2010 of Diversity & The Bar ®