Semicolons and the IP Boogeyman

Semicolons and IP

Learning about Intellectual Property (“IP”) taught me that I am not particularly attached to teaching proper semicolon usage. After years of working as an English Language Arts tutor for K-12 students, this realization came as a bit of a shock. Punctuation was not, in fact, my passion. What I love about teaching is what also attracts me to IP. I enjoy shedding light on the boogeyman that lurks in unfamiliar subjects.

My First “Byte” of IP

My junior year at Boston College I set aside tutoring K-12 students to take a job as an International Trade Intern with the U.S. Department of Commerce—International Trade Administration (“ITA”). My students called the new job a mid-life crisis. As a twenty-year-old International Studies major, it seemed like a natural transition to me.

Government Center, Boston, MA. Taken by Alexa Spitz.

My job was simple. I met with small business owners, identified promising markets abroad for their products, and encouraged them to export. Presenting to clients was like tutoring for adults! I loved it.

There was nothing in my job description about IP. At best, I had a rudimentary knowledge of the subject. I learned in my undergraduate-level business law class that IP rights are territorial. This means that IP protections such as patents and trademarks only have legal force in the country or region in which they were granted. This is important because IP rights are coveted assets. Patents, for example, give their owners the right to exclude all others from making the patented invention for the duration of the patent term. It is like a time-limited, legal monopoly in the country in which the patent was granted. Nothing says pricing power quite like a patent, but the rights that give rise to this power only exist where the patent does. So, if a small business owner procures a patent for their invention in the U.S. only and exports the invention to China for sale, what is to stop someone from reverse-engineering their invention and making it in China? The short answer is, nothing. The U.S. patent owner would also need to procure a patent in China for it to have any recourse.

My supervisor at the ITA and I agreed that first-time exporters should have access to this information about the territorial limits of their IP rights. We began casually reminding clients to secure IP rights abroad before exporting. But this often produced terror-filled eyes and more questions than we were qualified to answer.

Former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration, Kevin Wolf, and Former Deputy Assistant to the President for International Economics, Clete Williams speak to small and medium-sized business owners about exporting abroad. Taken by Alexa Spitz.

The IP Boogeyman

IP was like the boogeyman for first-time exporters. It was mysterious, complicated, and therefore frightening to a small business owner alone, in the dark. For example, a small business owner must procure IP protection in every country in which they want to export, outsource production, or collaborate with partners overseas. A small business owner’s dream of expansion quickly becomes a nightmare.

An agency of the United Nations, the World Intellectual Property Organization (“WIPO”), offers a single gateway to apply for various types of IP protection in multiple countries. These systems are helpful for those who know how to use them. But lurking in the forms and procedures are legalese and acronyms that could send the bravest business professionals running for the hills.

Fortunately, a boogeyman is no match for a trusty nightlight, or in our case at the ITA, an IP Summary Guide. My summer project for the ITA was to create this free guide for small business owners with information about IP, its importance, and links to resources and financial aid that could help shed some light on the otherwise opaque subject. The guide is currently being used in the Boston office and is intended to be distributed nationwide.

Like many so-called monsters, the IP boogeyman was simply misunderstood. He has become a great friend to the small business owners who got to know him.

One “Byte” Wasn’t Enough

The process of learning about IP while making the summary guide was addicting. I started my research on the ITA’s website for protecting IP rights, appropriately titled “stopfakes.gov.” For every answer I found on this site, I uncovered even more questions. I perused the website so often my familiarity with it was on par with the clearance tab of Nordstrom Rack. I enjoyed reading about IP for my own knowledge, but what I relished most was sharing what I learned with small business owners and connecting them with professionals who could help them. Watching the weight lift off clients’ shoulders was even more exciting than sending a second grader into her spelling test armed with the three syllable jingle “Wed-nes-day.”

As a 1L student at Loyola on the IP track, I enjoy learning about IP both inside and outside of the classroom. I am currently enrolled in Professor Cynthia Ho’s course, “Global Access to Medicine: A Patent Perspective.” Professor Ho challenges students not only to learn about patent rights and how they impact access to medicine on a global scale, but also to apply this knowledge in practical scenarios such as mock client presentations and reports. Effectively communicating the information I have learned is an invaluable skill that I look forward to bringing to my summer job as a trademark summer associate.

As my 1L year comes to a close, I can say with confidence that I still enjoy the challenge of learning about IP. I am grateful for the friends and mentors I have gained along the way. But what I love most is how sharing this knowledge can shed light on the boogeyman of an unfamiliar subject and empower people to continue learning.

Alexa Spitz

Assistant Blogger

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Class of 2025