Domain name wars. Copyright wars. Patent wars.
Today's digital marketplace is rife with legal battles that are making intellectual property attorneys into powerful titans of the business world.
Not even a decade ago, intellectual property law was a formulaic, humdrum and modest legal specialty.
Now it's a cash cow. The result: L.A. law firms are rapidly beefing up their IP practices, and IP specialists have become celebrities in local legal circles.
And demand for intellectual property attorneys is poised to rocket into the stratosphere in the wake of the decision earlier this month by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to create seven new Web domains. That promises to spawn a new tidal wave of cases, as companies and individuals go to war over the most prized names.
"It'll be good for lawyers and bad for trademark owners," said Scott Alderton, a partner with Los Angeles law firm Troop, Steuber, Pasich, Reddick & Tobey LLP. "The new ruling is going to cause more and more people to register other people's trademarks."
Morgan Chu, another leading L.A. intellectual property attorney, agreed.
"There will be a rush to capture what people consider to be the good names," said Chu, a managing partner with Century City firm Irell & Manella LLP.
In response to that and other dot-com development, local firms like Irell & Manella, Troop Steuber, and O'Melveny & Myers are moving quickly to bolster their intellectual property units, according to Sharon Yeo, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Intellectual Property Law Association.
Of the 120 lawyers at Troop, Steuber, 22 specialize in emerging technology and intellectual property. The firm represents such giants as Sony Corp., EMI Music Group, Fandom Inc. and Walt Disney Co.'s Go.com.
"We're going to be counseling our clients to get (newly created) domain names registered under their trademarked name before they're available to the general public," Alderton said.
The new suffixes ".biz," ".aero," ".name," ".coop," ".museum," ".info" and ".pro" are meant to relieve overcrowding on the Internet and to create alternatives for businesses and individuals trying to establish an identity online.
But for some cyber-opportunists, the new suffixes amount to little more than an invitation for cybersquatting the registration of names by speculators who hope to resell them for thousands and, sometimes, millions of dollars.
That's where the lawyers come in. They'll undoubtedly be hired en masse by companies and individuals that feel they have a right to particular names. And they'll try to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued the ".com," ".net" and ".org" suffixes that were snatched up and sold at a dizzying pace in recent years.
A Web site called DomainSurfer that tracks domain name registration shows how fierce the competition is for domain names. The site, a kind of domain name search engine, currently has nearly 26 million registered names in its database, many of which are for sale.
Domain name disputes might be making headlines lately, but other types of intellectual property cases are generating bigger settlements.
"It goes way beyond just domain name registration," Alderton said. "The most interesting part is the strategic partnering relationships that are going on, because there's no mold. Everything is new. Being in the middle of that and being able to counsel them is exciting."
"And profitable," he added.
Christopher Murray, chair of the entertainment venture and technology practice at Los Angeles law firm O'Melveny & Myers LLP, agreed.
"Intellectual property is an exploding area," he said. "All the brick-and-mortar clients are engaging in Internet activities. Every single client of the firm from James Garner and Carol Burnett to the Fortune 500 has an acute focus on intellectual property, whether its in valuing it, protecting it or developing a business strategy to exploit it."
Murray was just as gleeful about deal-making in the digital marketplace.
"It's somewhere between abstract art and metaphysics," he said. "Prior to the advent of the Net and digital media, deal-making was formulaic. I could do a distribution agreement in my sleep. The Net has caused us to enter into business relationships that have no precedent, that require us to think out of the box, to think with creativity and imaginativeness."
In October, O'Melveny & Myers merged its entertainment and media, venture capital and technology practices, in part, because those traditionally separate practices have been "coming together constantly" under intellectual property law, Murray said.
The firm, the oldest and largest in L.A., is also hungry for digitally savvy law school grads to meet client demand for intellectual property protection.
"That's who we desperately need," Murray said. But despite a growing number of law students specializing in intellectual property, job candidates are still "scarce as hen's teeth," he said.
Lawyers like Murray, Alderton, Chu and others can count on hitting serious pay dirt with major intellectual property cases.
Consider that on Nov. 14, online music site MP3.com, a provider of free online music, settled a copyright lawsuit filed against it by Universal Music Group for $53.4 million. The San Diego-based firm settled four similar suits with record labels earlier this year. So far, it has spent around $117 million on legal fees. An unfavorable ruling could have cost MP3.com an additional $118 million.
It's not just the recording and movie industries that will increasingly turn to intellectual property attorneys for help. The publishing, gaming and software industries will find their intellectual property in jeopardy with the emergence of broadband and new, user-friendly file swapping technologies.
For Chu, the greatest concern in intellectual property law is the proliferation of patents being filed for business methods.
Since a 1998 Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that permits patents for business methods, thousands of companies, especially Internet-based firms, have filed for business method patents.
"We're going to see a lot more litigation testing the business method patents, particularly as they relate to business on the Internet," Chu said. "Everybody will be trying to patent their business methods."
Amazon.com Inc. tested the waters and won last year, Chu said, when it got a patent for its "1-Click" technology. 1-Click simply allows visitors to complete a purchase with just one mouse-click. Amazon.com got a federal court in Seattle to bar rival Barnes & Noble.com; Inc. from using the technology.
"The Internet space, because it is so new, poses the opportunity for a lot of abuse of intellectual property," Alderton said. "But what we're seeing is a clearer set of court decisions and laws in which traditional legal principles prevail and protect the legitimate owners of intellectual property."
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