What is Intellectual Property Law?

Intellectual property law. Who would have thought even 300 years ago that people would do so much to protect something as intangible as their ideas? But, that’s were we are today. In a society where individualism and capitalism are the bedrock, it’s not too difficult to imagine why people would fight so hard to protect their ideas.

People and businesses take their ideas and trade secrets very seriously. They want to protect their perceived competitive advantages, and the government tends to support their efforts zealously. US law takes copyright infringement very seriously.

So what exactly is intellectual property law? Let’s start with the basics.

A Brief History of US Patents

The first US patent was issued on July 31, 1790. It was issued to a man by the name of Samuel Hopkins.

Just a few months before, president George Washington signed the Patent Act of 1790. It was created to give the applicant the sole and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using, and vending to others what he or she happened to patent.

It was created to promote inventions in the fields of engineering and manufacturing. Each patent could last a maximum of 14 years.

The first year there were three patents issued. The second year there were 33 granted.

Unfortunately, it took exorbitant amounts of time for the patent board to approve or deny a patent. So, after three years, the patent act was amended. The examination process was completely removed, and getting a patent became extremely easy.

Fast forward to 2015, there were over 325,000 patents granted. The total number of patents granted jumped over 9 million in 2016, and that number continues to grow at an exponential rate.

Long story short, if you want to practice intellectual property law, there’s plenty of work out there for you.


For the uninitiated, Napster was the original online music sharing company. Created in 1999, Napster was an instant hit. People all over the world were itching for an easy way to download music from the internet.

Back in 1999, DSL was a myth. There really wasn’t anything out there other than dialup connections. It was a sad, slow time. But, things were really starting to go crazy online. All of the sudden internet companies were popping up like weeds in a freshly plowed garden.

People wanted music, but it was still a pain to access. The files were big, and the programs available were difficult to use.

So, an 18 year-old college dropout decided to do something about it. He stayed up for 60 hours straight, writing code for a program that combined a music search function and a file sharing system. All the songs shared on Napster were in MP3 format, and the user interface was amazingly simple.

The program spread like wildfire.

In two short years it had accumulated about 80 million registered users.

Eventually word got out, and Metallica of all bands got upset. One of their songs was getting spread over Napster before it was officially released. Then, a month later Dr. Dre and Metallica filed copyright infringement suits against Napster.

Then a Madonna song spread before it was officially released. The proverbial crap hit the fan.

In 2000, Napster was sued by a bunch of recording companies in federal court. The claims were based on violations of the US Digital Millenium Copyright Act. They lost the case in trial, and then their appeal was shot down as well. In 2002, Napster declared bankruptcy and sold its assets.

Georgia Pacific v. Kimberly Clark

What would an article about patent infringement be without a huge fight between two toilet paper companies? The first thing you need to do is read at least a little bit of the case language from the judge. After reading a ton of really boring cases in law school, this one will definitely lighten the mood.

Georgia Pacific, through its “Quilted Northern” brand of toilet paper, began using a diamond shape on the paper to make it look like a quilt. After creation of the design, Georgia Pacific promptly obtained 5 patents.

After years of enjoying the fruit of its diamond shaped profits, Georgia Pacific noticed something upsetting. Kimberly Clark (via Cottonelle) was also using diamond designs on its toilet paper. And they looked shockingly similar to the ones embossed on the Quilted Northern squares.

Naturally, a lawsuit arose. I won’t get into the details of the case because, frankly, they’re messy and I don’t know much about toilet paper design.

In the end, Georgia Pacific’s lawyers lost because of how the company’s patent was registered in the early 1990s. As a result, Kimberly Clark was able to use the same diamond design on its toilet paper as well.

Louis Vuitton Malletier S.A. v. Haute Diggity Dog

Finally, we have a patent infringement case between fashion giant Louis Vuitton and Nevada-based pet product company. The argument stemmed from Haute Diggity Dog creating a chew toy named “Chewy Vuitton.”

The chew toy was an imitation Louis Vuitton hand bag, with the letters CV on the side, and Chewy Vuitton embossed on the other side.

In a surprise turn of events, the Courts ruled in favor of the small pet merchandise company.

The victory in this case hinged on whether or not the chew toy was a parody of the actual thing. This decision left a lot of people stunned, to say the least.

But hey, I’m not too bummed. While I’d never even think of purchasing a Louis Vuitton bag, I might consider dropping 13 bucks on a chew toy to give to one of my daughters to carry around.


There are tons of intellectual property law issues out there. I’ve just picked out a few of my favorite ones. I’ll be the first one to tell you that I initially dismissed doing intellectual property law because the subject matter is really technical. But hey, after reading through these cases, maybe I was wrong.

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  • Randall

    Randall earned his JD from the University of Denver in 2013. He received his BA in Communications and Social Science from the University of Washington in 2010. Randall took the LSAT twice, and managed to improve his score by 14 points the second time around. He paid the price of learning to score high on the LSAT and hopes to help other potential law students avoid similar pain.

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