Copyrights Patents Q&A Trade Secrets Trademarks

What Should I Do If Another Business is Infringing My IP?

An appropriate response to infringement (or misappropriation) will depend on which type(s) of intellectual property (IP) rights are involved.  While some forms of infringement can be enforced by the government, prosecutors rarely take up disputes between competitor businesses. This leaves it up to the IP owner to pursue a civil remedy. Therefore, the first step is generally to conduct your own investigation to ascertain your IP ownership rights, ascertain the identity of the infringing party or parties, preserve evidence of the infringement, and perform a legal analysis to confirm that the conduct in question is prohibited by law. Following an investigation, a cease & desist (demand) letter could be sent, a lawsuit initiated, or possibly other action taken.

Tip: Consider implementing a proactive monitoring program to search for and identify potential infringement of your IP. No one else will identify infringement for you.

As part of your initial investigation of infringement, the legal analysis should consider:

  1. do you have a chain of title to the IP (that is, can you prove ownership)?
  2. does the conduct fall within the scope of your enforceable exclusive rights or is the conduct permitted by law (such as a “fair use” under copyright law)?
  3. did the other party have permission? , perhaps impliedly
  4. what jurisdiction(s) is the infringer located in?
  5. what remedies are available for the type of infringement involved? 

Following an initial investigation, which should be performed with the assistance of a knowledgeable attorney, it is common to send a cease & desist or other demand letter.  This puts the infringer on notice of the claim of infringement, which can remove innocent infringer defenses going forward, trigger the accrual of damages, etc.  A letter might be sent to a publisher, distributor, web host, etc. as well, which can have significance under safe harbor provisions for some types of IP.  If a letter is ineffective, or simply not desired, litigation or certain non-litigation action should be considered. 

As to litigation, patent and copyright actions are handled exclusively by U.S. federal courts and generally require having a patent or copyright registration (at least for copyrightable United States works) before filing suit.  Trademark, trade secret, cybersquatting, and false advertising actions can sometimes be brought in either federal or state court.  A trademark registration is not required to bring suit in the U.S.  A statute of limitations or equitable limits may apply, such as a 3-year limit for copyright infringement claims and a 6-year limit on back damages for patent infringement. 

Remedies may be available outside of courts as well, though often without monetary recovery.  For example, administrative agencies such as Customs & Border Protection and the International Trade Commission can block or exclude importation of infringing goods, and a copyright small claims action may be available.  Online platforms and marketplaces may also have their own IP dispute resolution procedures and mandatory arbitration (e.g., UDRP, URS) may apply to domain name disputes. 

With some exceptions, many IP rights are generally enforceable on a jurisdictional or territorial basis.  If infringement implicates activities in another country, the available remedies and requirements to pursue a claim can vary widely and you may need to consult competent foreign legal counsel. 

Many IP disputes reach settlements, though it cannot be assumed that parties will be able to reach a pretrial settlement.  When considering bringing an infringement or misappropriation suit, bear in mind that awards of attorney’s fees are not always available or likely.  The cost to pursue an IP lawsuit might exceed the monetary recovery, though the benefits of stopping infringement or misappropriation may still be worth the unrecoverable expenses of a suit in some situations. 

Photo of Austen Zuege

Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Copyrights Patents Q&A Trade Secrets Trademarks

What Should I Do to Avoid Infringing Anyone Else’s IP When Releasing a New Product?

Here is a common scenario. Your business is planning to release a new product but wants to avoid infringing anyone else’s IP. What should you do? To avoid infringing anyone else’s IP, you should consider proactive clearance or freedom-to-operate (FTO) efforts, ideally before the new product is commercially launched.  Such efforts are not legally mandated but should be tailored to your businesses’ risk tolerance in light of the typical costs of patent, trademark, copyright, and trade secret litigation.  The scope of these efforts will depend upon the type of IP involved.  Specific efforts may also depend on where you are planning to release the product, geographically. The following discussion focuses on the USA.

General Tips

Consider implementing overarching policies and protocols to reduce IP infringement (or misappropriation) risks. Educate and supervise staff accordingly. Do not simply assume that employees will already understand or care about IP infringement and misappropriation risks.

Make reasonable efforts to avoid infringement, including proactive clearance/FTO efforts where appropriate. But accept, as a cost of doing business, that despite those efforts there will always remain some risk that a “troll” will make an IP infringement claim of dubious merit.  Failing to make reasonable efforts will just make it easier for others to target you with infringement claims that are expensive to defend.

When making goods or materials at the request of a customer (e.g., private label goods), be cautious of harsh and potentially predatory indemnity or warranty terms in purchase agreements. These can come into play if the customer is requesting infringement—either intentionally or merely negligently—while passing all infringement liability onto your business.  You might be agreeing to assume IP infringement risks that far exceed the commercial value of the contract. This is also a concern where infringement liability may depend on customer actions outside your control.

It is also recommended to obtain a business insurance policy with coverage for unintentional trademark and copyright infringement (e.g., “advertising injury” coverage without major exclusions or limiting definitions). However, patent infringement coverage is not found in typical general business policies and is uncommon (because its cost/benefit tradeoff is rarely attractive).


For patents, the most common type of patent infringement has essentially a strict liability character and infringement does not depend on whether you had actual knowledge of the other party’s patent(s). However, though knowledge and intent (willfulness) can impact damages. Also, indirect infringement—a category of certain types of infringement—may require knowledge of the patent and that your activities infringe.

Consider a pre-launch patent FTO study that initially involves a search for any potentially conflicting patents, followed by a legal analysis. Proactively performing a patent FTO study allows you to find potentially problematic patents before they find you. That makes possible certain risk reduction efforts, such as an opinion of counsel, a design around, seeking a license, etc.


For trademarks, infringement has essentially a strict liability character and infringement does not depend on whether you had actual knowledge of the other party’s trademark. Liability can arise if there is a likelihood of confusion, even in the absence of any actual confusion by consumers. Trademark infringement does not have to be willful to result in a damages award. Also, there is a presumption that a trademark owner can obtain an injunction against use of an infringing mark.

When adopting new branding, it is not unusual for a first-choice mark (and second-choice…) to be already taken by another business. Many marks are already taken by others, which limits the universe of marks freely available for your business’ use at the time of adoption. It may be preferable to select a different mark from the start than to later re-brand, because re-branding tends to become more burdensome, costly, and disheartening as time passes.

Consider a pre-launch trademark clearance that initially involves a search for any potentially conflicting trademarks, followed by a legal analysis. Such a search should encompass all the relevant jurisdictions (e.g., all countries where your brand or mark will be used). Registration is not required to have enforceable trademark rights in the U.S. So a clearance search should ideally assess possible unregistered marks too.


For copyrights, there must be unauthorized copying of protected expression. Though there can be risks from copying that happens through inattention or negligent conduct. Fair use limits the copyright owner’s exclusive rights, but fair use will not always apply (and usually won’t when simply making commercial use of a work rather than making critical commentary about the work). There are many misconceptions about copyright law. For instance, just because something is available on the Internet does not make it “fair game” for your business’ use—even if denoted as being “free” or “royalty free”.

Have an awareness of copyright infringement risks. Also be aware of the ways that employees might commit infringement. For instance, employees posting materials to online platforms under via company accounts can present copyright infringement risks. Consider ways to educate employees about copyright and supervise employee activities.

Perform copyright clearance for any materials that you did not wholly create yourself that you plan to use, and obtain written permission or a license or assignment of ownership. Retain records of written authorizations. And make sure that you adhere to the terms of any license. Also consider seeking an indemnity for any licensed materials, because you could be licensing materials that are themselves infringing.

Trade Secrets

For trade secrets, there must be misappropriation of secret materials. Though there can be risks from misappropriation that happens though inattention or negligent conduct. However, trade secret misappropriation will generally only arise if your business had received secret information from someone else. This could occur by hiring an employee who knows confidential information from a prior employer.

For trade secrets, review any non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in place and consider clean room or other protocols if any confidential materials were or will be received by staff. 

Photo of Austen Zuege

Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Agreements Copyrights Patents Q&A Trade Secrets Trademarks

How Can My Business Acquire and Own IP Rights?

Some intellectual property (IP) rights arise automatically under certain circumstances while others require affirmative action. 

PRACTICAL TIP: Think about IP early to avoid waiving potential rights and consider the benefits of optional protections.


Copyright attaches automatically to the author when a new creative work (e.g., text, photo, etc.) is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  Registration is not required for copyright to exist.  Copyright ownership is also independent of possession and ownership of a copy of a work—even the “original” or sole copy. 


Trademark rights can arise through use of a mark to identify the source of goods or services, provided that the mark is distinctive.  Registration is not required to have enforceable trademark rights in the U.S.  However, registration of a mark, particularly a federal registration on the Principal Register, helps to secure rights through the entire country and over time can limit the possibility for others to challenge the trademark rights in the registration.

Trade Secrets

Trade secret rights can attach to information that derives economic value from not being generally known and not being readily ascertainable so long as you take reasonable measures to keep it secret, meaning the existence of trade secret rights depends on the affirmative steps you take to maintain secrecy. 


Patent rights require applying for and then obtaining a patent following an examination to determine if the invention satisfies criteria for patentability, which include novelty and nonobviousness.  In the U.S., a patent must be applied for within one year of any disclosure, public use, or commercialization of the invention by the inventor. In most other countries, a patent must be applied for before any public disclosure.

International Considerations

Patent and trademark rights are territorial and rights in the U.S. will generally not provide exclusive rights abroad.  Copyright and trade secret rights may have international enforceability in both the U.S. and some foreign jurisdictions. 

Assignments and Licenses

IP rights can also be obtained from others via assignment (i.e., a transfer of ownership) or licensing (i.e., authorization to use the IP without a transfer of ownership).  For many types of IP, assignments must be in writing and/or satisfy other criteria to be valid.  Trademark rights are tied to underlying customer goodwill and cannot be assigned apart from that goodwill. A “naked” assignment of a trademark without associated goodwill can result in abandonment, as can licensing without quality control.

Employee- and Vendor-Created IP and Joint Development

When employees create things that may be subject to IP rights, the general rule—with some exceptions (notably for copyrightable works made for hire created by an employee within the scope of his or her job duties)—is that the employee rather than the employer is the owner.  Businesses wanting to obtain ownership of employee-created IP should consider a written agreement (e.g., employment agreement) that establishes either an obligation to assign IP (to be followed later by execution of an assignment) or a prospective assignment of expected future IP.

When hiring a vendor to create or develop something, or jointly developing something with a business partner, consider who will own the IP at the outset. Merely paying for development will not automatically result in the transfer of ownership of vendor-created IP. Joint development can raise complex questions about who will own what, and ownership of particular IP may depend on which person(s) or entity contributed to that particular subject matter in the absence of a written agreement.

A common mistake is to ignore ownership of IP rights until there is infringement or a big business deal. Attempting to “fix” or alter IP ownership after the fact is usually much more complicated than sorting that out from the start of a vendor/partner/employee relationship (or even at the start of a particular project).

Online Resources:

Photo of Austen Zuege

Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Copyrights Patents Q&A Trade Secrets Trademarks

How Can I Protect the Design of My Business’ Products?

Intellectual property (IP) rights might allow a business to obtain exclusive rights in some or all aspects of a product. Such IP rights can potentially include patents, trademarks (i.e., trade dress), copyrights, and trade secrets. But the types of IP that might apply will vary depending on the context of the product involved, and may require affirmative action to secure and maintain IP rights.

Consider patentability before any public disclosure or commercialization of a product in order to avoid potential loss of patent rights.  Although other types of IP protection might be available, exclusivity in the design of a new useful product is first and foremost a question of potential patent protection.

Patent Protection

Patents can provide exclusive rights for a limited time in exchange for disclosure of an invention. An inventive product—and/or a process or method associated with making or using it—can be protected with a utility patent.  However, a patent application must be filed within one year of public disclosure or commercialization (or, in other countries, before any public disclosure).  The invention must also satisfy three criteria for patentability: utility, novelty, and non-obviousness. The latter two criteria depend on the scope and content of the prior art.  A patentable invention cannot already be known and must represent a non-trivial advance over what was already known.  These assessments are made in an absolute sense. Prior art is not limited to commercially available products. And it does not matter whether or not the inventor actually knew about the relevant prior art. 

The ornamental appearance of a useful article can be protected with a design patent if the ornamental design is novel and non-obvious. Design patents can cover surface ornamentations for an article of manufacture, the ornamental shape or configuration of an article of manufacture itself, and combinations of those categories. Abstract designs (e.g., a picture standing alone) are not patentable.

Trade Dress / Trademark Protection

Trade dress (a form of trademark protection) may also protect the distinctive, nonfunctional appearance of a product or its packaging.  However, trade dress protection only arises in aspects of product configuration that serve as a trademark to allow consumers to identify the source of the product. Trade dress never protects functional aspects of product configuration or packaging. In other words, it is limited to aspects that relate to the manufacturer or seller’s reputation and not to the usefulness of the thing itself.

In the U.S., trade dress protection requires achieving acquired distinctiveness once secondary meaning has developed in the minds of consumers based upon substantially continuous exclusive use for a sufficient period of time (generally a minimum of five years).  Trade dress will not provide exclusive rights in product configuration at the time of a new product’s launch, though it might for packaging. 

Copyright Protection

Copyright might apply to certain aspects of products, such as product labels or decorative graphics applied onto a product.  But copyright will not protect useful or functional parts, only those creative aspects that are conceptually separable and capable of existing apart from the useful or functional parts. For example, a lamp that incorporates a sculpture could have copyright protection in the sculptural elements but purely functional electrical components that allow the lamp to illuminate would not have copyright protection. The text of software code can be copyrightable but not the functionality enabled by software (which might be patentable instead).

Trade Secret Protection

Trade secret protection will not apply to publicly visible or readily ascertainable aspects of a product. But things like the “secret formula”, manufacturing methods, or aspects of embedded software might be protectable as trade secrets if they are not generally known and not readily ascertainable and you take reasonable measures to keep such things secret.

Photo of Austen Zuege

Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Q&A Trade Secrets

What Steps Must a Company Take to Protect Its Trade Secrets?

What Is a Trade Secret?

There are three basic elements of a trade secret: (1) it is not generally known to the public (and is not readily ascertainable by proper means); (2) it confers economic benefit on its holder because the information is not publicly known; and (3) the holder makes reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy.  But it can be just about any type of information. 

Examples of trade secrets given in the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA) are “a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, or process” and the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) definition gives as examples “all forms and types of financial, business, scientific, technical, economic, or engineering information, including patterns, plans, compilations, program devices, formulas, designs, prototypes, methods, techniques, processes, procedures, programs, or codes . . . .”  Trade secrets can also potentially encompass customer lists, marketing and distribution strategies, etc. 

Protecting Trade Secrets

Determining what steps must be taken to protect a trade secret will depend on the circumstances and the nature of the information in question but principally comes down to what constitutes reasonable efforts to maintain secrecy.  Such efforts must always involve affirmative acts.  At a minimum, you must be able to point to specific protective steps affirmatively taken to guard trade secrets that go beyond normal business practices applied to all business information.

To restate the obvious, remember that trade secrets must have been kept secret.  In this sense, you cannot “un-ring a bell” and later claim as a trade secret something that was not kept secret in the first place or was publicly disclosed at some point.  It is possible to abandon trade secrecy protections.  So whatever protective measures are put in place they must actually be followed. 

Example Affirmative Measures to Maintain Secrecy

Common affirmative measures to protect trade secrets include the following.  But, alone, any one of these steps may be insufficient. 

Contracts such as non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or confidentiality clauses inserted in other types of agreements can help establish trade secret status while allowing necessary personnel access to information.  And such agreements may benefit from further terms defining or otherwise acknowledging that certain types of information qualify as enforceable trade secrets. 

Confidential materials can also be marked as such to explicitly make clear trade secret claims.  Marking can be especially important where materials are exchanged under an NDA.  More generally, make sure recipients of trade secrets understand applicable secrecy requirements. Though, for instance, the Minnesota UTSA states that “[t]he existence of a trade secret is not negated merely because an employee or other person has acquired the trade secret without express or specific notice that it is a trade secret if, under all the circumstances, the employee or other person knows or has reason to know that the owner intends or expects the secrecy of the type of information comprising the trade secret to be maintained.” 

Access to trade secret materials can also be limited, which can help minimize risks of accidental or unintended disclosures.  Departing employees should also be cut off from access to trade secret materials.  Computer/IT systems and physical spaces containing trade secret information should be secured and protected from unauthorized access. 

Lastly, an employee or executive could be appointed to oversee protection of some or all trade secrets.

Have an invention you would like to patent? Have a brand you would like to register as a trademark? Concerned about infringing someone else’s intellectual property? Is someone else infringing your IP? Need representation in an IP dispute? Austen is a patent attorney / trademark attorney who can help. These and other IP issues are his area of expertise. Contact Austen today to discuss.

Copyrights Patents Q&A Trade Secrets Trademarks

What Are Typical IP Litigation Costs?

Intellectual property (IP) litigation tends to be relatively expensive compared to other types of lawsuits. There are many reasons for that. Though the complexity of the legal issues involved and a tendency for extensive pre-trial discovery and use of expert witnesses contribute to the total costs.

Below are graphs showing average costs through various stages of a an infringement or misappropriation lawsuit in the U.S. A summary graph compares average costs for “small” patent, copyright, trademark, and trade secret cases with less than $1,000,000 at risk. There are also individual graphs for patent, copyright, trademark, and trade secret cases with different amounts at risk, that is, with different amounts of potential damages for infringement or misappropriation (in U.S. dollars). All data comes from the 2021 AIPLA Report of the Economic Survey.

graph of average patent, trademark, copyright, and trade secret litigation costs by stage.  Initial Case Management: $57,000 (Patent), $24,000 (Copyright), $22,000 (Trademark), $60,000 (Trade Secret); Discovery, Motions (incl. Claim Const.): $369,000 (Patent), $161,000 (Copyright), $200,000 (Trademark), $367,000 (Trade Secret); Trial, + Any Appeal: $771,000 (Patent), $1,143,000 (Copyright), $415,000 (Trademark), $776,000 (Trade Secret).
Comparison of Average “Small” IP Lawsuit Costs by Type of Case and Stage
Clustered bar graph of average patent litigation cumulative costs, by stage of case, for cases with less than $1M, $1-10M, $10-25M, and >$25M at risk.
Initial Case Management: $57,000 	$122,000 	$421,000 	$361,000; Discovery, Motions (incl. Claim Const.): $369,000 	$1,033,000 	$1,621,000 	$3,556,000; Trial, + Any Appeal:	$771,000 	$1,910,000 	$3,728,000 	$5,568,000
Average Patent Litigation Costs
Clustered bar graph of average copyright litigation cumulative costs, by stage of case, for cases with less than $1M, $1-10M, $10-25M, and >$25M at risk.  Initial Case Management: $24,000 	$77,000 	$136,000 	$292,000; Discovery, Motions: $161,000 	$882,000 	$1,125,000 	$2,501,000; Trial, + Any Appeal: $1,143,000 	$1,421,000 	$2,358,000 	$5,778,000
Average Copyright Litigation Costs
Clustered bar graph of average trademark litigation cumulative costs, by stage of case, for cases with less than $1M, $1-10M, $10-25M, and >$25M at risk.  Initial Case Management: $22,000 	$48,000 	$83,000 	$194,000; Discovery, Motions: $200,000 	$514,000 	$837,000 	$1,718,000; Trial, + Any Appeal: $415,000 	$892,000 	$1,592,000 	$3,381,000
Average Trademark Litigation Costs
Clustered bar graph of average trade secret litigation cumulative costs, by stage of case, for cases with less than $1M, $1-10M, $10-25M, and >$25M at risk.  Initial Case Management: $60,000 	$102,000 	$171,000 	$469,000; Discovery, Motions: $367,000 	$977,000 	$1,708,000 	$2,112,000; Trial, + Any Appeal	$776,000 	$1,717,000 	$3,309,000 	$4,582,000
Average Trade Secret Litigation Costs

Additional reports on IP litigation are available from various sources, including PWC’s 2018 Patent Litigation Study, Lex Machina’s 2023 Patent Litigation Report (and infographic), Bloomberg Law’s 2023 Litigation Statistics Series: Patent Litigation, and UnifiedPatents’ Patent Dispute Report: 2023 in Review, as well as Lex Machina’s 2021 Copyright and Trademark Litigation Report (and trademark infographic and copyright infographic).

Photo of Austen Zuege

Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Agreements Copyrights Patents Q&A Trade Secrets

Who Owns the IP for Things a Vendor Creates?

Introduction — Why This Matters

Businesses often hire vendors to develop things for them, perhaps due to a lack of expertise in some particular area or just a lack of capacity.  The vendor might be another firm, an individual independent freelancer, a temporary contractor working on-site, or some other type of consultant. This is often referred to as outsourcing. But who owns the intellectual property (IP) for things the vendor creates? This question should be asked at the beginning of a vendor relationship. Ideally, it should be answered before hiring the vendor.

All too often businesses ignore ownership of IP rights until there is infringement or a big business deal long after the vendor was hired. But cutting corners or forgetting to put IP ownership in writing at the beginning of a vendor relationship can potentially have huge (if avoidable) consequences later on. Businesses do come to regret such oversights later on. For instance, when selling a business, a prospective buyer might raise questions about lack of IP ownership due to vendor or outside contractor involvement, which might present barriers to completing the sale or might lower the purchase price. Or, when there is infringement, a business lacking ownership will not have standing to sue the infringer while the vendor (who still owns the IP) may be unconcerned and disinterested.

A common mistake is to wrongly assume that merely paying a vendor automatically transfers IP ownership or that receiving physical copies (even the sole original) transfers IP ownership. In the absence of something in writing, the vendor most likely retains any patent or copyright ownership interests. Vendors, for their part, may also be ignorant or misinformed about IP rights. Anyone hiring a vendor should not assume that the vendor understands potential IP issues or that the vendor’s standard agreement (sometimes called a master services agreement) will adequately or satisfactorily address and allocate IP ownership.

Type of IPDefault Owner (Subject to Exceptions)
TrademarksUser of mark (to designate source)
Trade SecretsRightful owner
Table Summarizing Who Typically Owns IP Initially (In the Absence of an Agreement or Local Law to the Contrary)

Seeking to obtain IP rights from a vendor after the end of the relationship can be difficult. You may find yourself without leverage to insist upon vendor cooperation or the vendor may no longer exist (or be deceased).  And vendors may opportunistically seek windfalls to assign over IP rights after-the-fact.  In worst-case scenarios, the vendor may own the IP and be able to freely commercialize it to your disadvantage, as well as to potentially block further independent development by you.

From the vendor’s perspective, an assignment of IP rights might be undesirable. But this is a question of leverage (bargaining power) and whether the vendor is willing and able to turn down potential new work. Though a suitable compromise may be to provide a license-back to a vendor, allowing certain uses by the vendor while still transferring IP ownership to the vendor’s client. An example is a portfolio license allowing the vendor to show examples of past work to potential clients. What makes sense in any particular situation will vary, of course.

Patents and Copyrights

For patents and copyrights, the general rule in the United States is that whoever creates the IP is the owner.  In the absence of a written agreement to the contrary, this means that a vendor will generally own any patent rights or copyrights stemming from the vendor’s own efforts by default, even if the customer paid the vendor for it.  But there are exceptions.  And it is possible to agree in advance who will own the IP — that generally needs to be in writing. 

“For patents and copyrights, the general rule in the United States is that whoever creates the IP is the owner.”

By statute, transfer of ownership of patents (or a patentable invention) and copyrights must be in writing — though copyright law allows the copyright owner’s duly authorized agent to sign an assignment. Any written document, including purely electronic materials, could include or constitute an assignment if it shows intent to presently transfer ownership rights. The written document should use words like “assigns”, “hereby assigns”, “hereby conveys, transfers, and assigns”, etc. to create a present transfer of ownership. Oral assurances will not transfer ownership of an invention (patent) or copyright; although limited implied non-exclusive licenses or equitable rights (e.g., shop rights) might still arise without being in writing. 

Agreements that constitute merely an obligation to assign — typically phrased in the future tense such as with “will own” or “shall assign” language — do not effectuate an assignment of IP. Rather, obligations to assign require later execution of a separate written assignment. But ambiguous language relating to possible future agreements (such as “shall be owned as agreed upon”) may not even create an obligation to assign.

Some jurisdictions have different default rules about IP ownership. At least one U.S. state, Nevada, may vest initial ownership of patent rights with the inventor’s employer rather than the inventor by statute. Under common law, a “hired to invent” doctrine may affect patent ownership too, in limited scenarios. Some other countries also have laws that place ownership of an invention in the hands of the employer rather than the inventor. Though sometimes these laws establish only an obligation to assign. It is important to consider the location of the vendor, the location(s) of the individuals involved, and the location(s) were relevant activities took place to determine which jurisdiction’s laws will apply.

Joint development may also result in joint ownership.  If the vendor and your business collaborate to jointly develop IP, by default they are each the owner of an equal and undivided interest in the entire IP right(s).  Under the patent laws, in the absence of an agreement, co-owners can each independently exploit the invention without an accounting to the other (though all co-owners must join a lawsuit to have standing to sue an accused infringer).  Under copyright case law, an accounting is due to the other co-owner(s) for profits arising from the jointly-owned work to prevent unjust enrichment.  Joint development agreements or the like can set forth various ownership rights in advance and can also govern the handling of relevant pre-existing “background” IP.

All the above concerns also apply to vendors themselves.  For patents, an invention by a vendor’s employee is generally not automatically owned by the vendor.  And if a vendor retains a subcontractor or non-employee then copyright ownership would likely initially vest in the subcontractor/non-employee creating a given work in the absence of an assignment or valid work made for hire agreement.  Therefore, in the absence of a warranty relating to the vendor’s ownership of IP and/or a no-subcontracting contractual provision, or intimate knowledge of the circumstances involved in the creation of the IP, there is no assurance that an assignment from the vendor (alone) will transfer all IP ownership to you. 

“Work Made for Hire”

An important potential exception to initial ownership under U.S. copyright law involves oft-misunderstood “work made for hire” statutory provisions.  There are two, and only two, ways to qualify something as a work made for hire under current law. First, a copyrightable work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment is deemed authored by and thus automatically owned from the outset by the employer.  But vendors and even “internal” independent contractors do not fall within that definition. 

Second, parties without an employee/employer relationship can also agree in writing that a work will be a “work made for hire” but only for nine categories of uses of works enumerated in 17 U.S.C. § 101, which may not apply—parties cannot contractually expand those statutory categories. 

A “work made for hire” is-

(1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or

(2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use [i] as a contribution to a collective work, [ii] as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, [iii] as a translation, [iv] as a supplementary work [see definition below], [v] as a compilation, [vi] as an instructional text, [vii] as a test, [viii] as answer material for a test, or [ix] as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. For the purpose of the foregoing sentence, a “supplementary work” is a work prepared for publication as a secondary adjunct to a work by another author for the purpose of introducing, concluding, illustrating, explaining, revising, commenting upon, or assisting in the use of the other work, such as forewords, afterwords, pictorial illustrations, maps, charts, tables, editorial notes, musical arrangements, answer material for tests, bibliographies, appendixes, and indexes, and an “instructional text” is a literary, pictorial, or graphic work prepared for publication and with the purpose of use in systematic instructional activities.

Definition of copyright “work made for hire” from 17 U.S.C. § 101

The “work made for hire” doctrine is frequently misunderstood. In practice, it might even be single the most misapplied and confusing provision in all IP law. Simply because you pay someone to make or provide something copyrightable is not enough. And even having a contract that purports to establish something a work made for hire may not actually achieve that goal. It is fairly common for contracts to include language about work made for hire that does not apply and has no legal effect. Only things that meet the statutory definition of “work made for hire” are legally effective.

Because the statute defines categories of possible works made for hire by a somewhat arbitrary and limited list, which is based on “use” rather than the inherent characteristics of the work, it may be difficult to know upfront if something will qualify with certainty. For instance, if a vendor is specially commissioned to write some text, that text could qualify as a work made for hire if commissioned for use as an “instructional text” but the identical text would not if instead commissioned for use in a novel or on an advertising billboard. Moreover, whether vendor-created software source code qualifies as “a contribution to a collective work” and/or “a compilation”, and was intended to be used in that manner, may be far from clear, particularly before any work begins. And agreements, on their face, may not clarify these crucial facts.

A work made for hire not only affects who owns the work but also who is considered the author. This can potentially be significant for copyright termination rights. The persons(s) who actually prepare a work made for hire have no termination rights, whereas person(s) who assign rights to a work can potentially invoke terminate prior assignment transfers (or licenses) decades later.

For older works, created before the 1976 Copyright Act, a much different “instance and expense” test was applied to determine who is the copyright owner. Under that older test, which is inapplicable to recently-created works but can still apply to old works, the commissioning or hiring party may be treated as an “employer” and thus the “author” and copyright owner for things a vendor or outside contractor creates—regardless of the type of intended use of the work.

Trade Secrets

The rightful owner of trade secret rights will be the party that develops the trade secret information, by default. This means technical know-how, etc. developed independently by a vendor will normally belong to the vendor.  It may be unclear whether relevant trade secrets were part of “background” IP that pre-dated a relationship with the vendor or not, which can potentially become a point of dispute later on.  But a written agreement can be used to establish intended trade secret ownership from the outset. 

On the other hand, confidential information developed by a vendor might lose trade secret status if shared with a client business (or others) without reasonable measures to maintain secrecy. This might limit or prevent a vendor from attempting to assert trade secret rights against its client and/or its client’s customers, particularly if there was no non-disclosure agreement (NDA) or other enforceable contract term.


U.S. trademark rights accrue to the party actually using a mark in connection with commercial activity to designate the source of goods and/or services.  For instance, a marketing firm creating a brand strategy and identifying a proposed mark for a client would not obtain U.S. trademark rights because only the client business would use (or intend to use) the resultant mark in commerce.  But many other countries have first-to-register systems, which might allow a vendor to register your mark. Ownership of non-trademark rights, such as copyright, in graphical logos intended to be used as trademarks might be a little more complicated and might raise other issues too, including a potential divergence in who owns the copyright and trademark rights.

Photo of Austen Zuege

Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.