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Intellectual property protection for multimedia

Fred Williams
Williams and Associates

The term multi-media generally implies a combination of media for the storage, transmission, or playback of visual and aural information. Technology for such applications evolves at a bewildering pace, but the law protecting innovation still relies on centuries-old concepts. New ideas and methods can be protected as trade secrets, under copyright law, and through patents. (Trademark protection applies primarily to identification of products and services in actual commerce and will be discussed at most in passing.) Trade secret law, now largely statutory, at least in the United States, evolved from protection against unfair competition. It protects commercially valuable information, not necessarily novel or creative, which is not generally known, especially to competitors. Copyright law does not protect novel ideas, only the new and unique expressionof ideas, new or old. It applies to creative products, including songs, novels, movies, as well as some business documents, and especially to software. Copyright protection of software has intricate refinements as to exactly what is protected from copying. Compiliations, such as databases, also enjoy limited copyright protection. Patent law gives protection to ideas, but only if they have application in the real world. In European patent law, the catch word is "industrial applicability." To be protected, inventions also must be novel, that is, not virtually identical to someone else's prior invention, and not be obvious. In European patent law, non- obviousness is characterized as having an "inventive step." These basic modes of protection apply both to the content of multi-media applications and to the means of storing, transmitting, and playback and display of the content. New content is relatively easy to protect under copyright law, although enforcement is another matter. New hardware is also relatively easy to protect under patent law. Patent protection of software, including but not limited to digital signal processing methods, has undergone substantial development, at least in the United States, in the last ten years, but is still to some extent groping for a workable distinction between computer programs that represent pure ideas and are not protectable and those that have application to the real world. Some effort will be made to highlight differences between United States law and European law with respect to the foregoing topics.

Mr. Williams received a B.S. in Physics from Boston College and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, also in Physics. After serving as a Naval officer, including a tour as an instructor in Physics at the U.S. Naval Academy, he was a post-doctoral fellow in Nuclear Physics at the University of Rochester, where he published a number of papers in nuclear reaction theory and calculation of parameters, especially for fission reactions. Subsequently he received his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School, graduating magna cum laude. Since that time Mr. Williams has practiced law in a variety of settings but concentrating on engineering and technical problems. During the last decade he has concentrated more and more on patent law and its applications.

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