Your immigration law firm is a business, and it’s important to approach your law practice as such. Just as you think about general aspects of your work, like building a team and completing tasks, you may also want to evaluate the intellectual property (IP) your law firm has created and consider protecting it. In this article, we’ll examine typical examples of intellectual property, how they might relate to an immigration law practice, and some things to consider when deciding whether you should protect your intellectual property.
Before we continue, it’s important to remember that the information in this article is intended for information only and should not be considered legal advice. For advice that fits your firm’s unique needs, we advise you to contact a lawyer specializing in intellectual property.
The World Intellectual Property Organization defines intellectual property as "creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names, and images used in commerce." Intellectual property (IP) is a specialized field of law intended to protect these creations and to recognize a creator's work by either receiving credit in a mention or financial compensation for use. Intellectual property law protects patents, copyright, and trademark, as well as trade secrets. Let’s review the basics of intellectual property through definitions established by the US Copyright Office, or the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Copyright protects “original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression”. Everyone that writes anything original is, in theory, a copyright owner. A trademark is a signage that allows you to distinguish one original work from another. To ensure your trademark is protected, you need to register it. Patents are probably the least relevant form of IP to immigration lawyers - a patent is an “exclusive right granted for an invention, a product or a process that shows a new way of doing something or offers a new technical solution to a problem. You must disclose technical information about the invention to the public in a patent application”.
A trade secret is information that must be “commercially valuable due to being secret, only known to a limited group of people, and be subject to reasonable steps to keep the information secret.”
Here are some examples of items you as an immigration attorney may have created, and perhaps created consistently, that may fall under one of the IP categories we defined previously:
Logos and taglines are visible representations of your brand. Logos are made to catch people’s attention and are usually something people remember easily. Your logo and tagline appear across multiple places, like your social media pages, business cards, letterhead, etc., so this is a good place to start if you’re considering protecting your law firm’s intellectual property.
Original written work on your website falls under copyright laws by default; however, displaying visible protections on your website are a good idea, for example adding the copyright (©) symbol at the bottom of each blog post and your website page footers makes the copyright visible. Especially because as an immigration lawyer you likely do business across states, it’s not a bad idea to protect the content you write on your website. Again, though, the written content on your website and your original blogs do fall under copyright laws without you doing anything extra.
If you decide to trademark some of your materials, here are some suggestions for how to start the process, although again, we suggest reaching out to an IP lawyer to ensure you receive advice that fits your needs.
There are specific pieces of content you create on social media that you may be able to protect under copyright, trademark, or both. Some examples are taglines you write to use in your social media posts, a phrase or slogan at the beginning of your podcast if you host one, a video if you have an online channel, or a visual product like an animation you may use. Depending on what it is, your content could fall under copyright in the same way that website copy and blogs do in that simply by creating it and publishing it may be considered protected. Other content, however, like a tagline, may also fall under trademark law, and you may want to file for a registered trademark to protect that work so no one else appropriates or copies it.
This is not very common, but some immigration law firms develop proprietary software, tools, or processes that may fall under patent protection. Let’s review some basics about patents and the types of patents you may want to consider should you develop something that fits.
According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, patents are “a limited duration property right relating to an invention, granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in exchange for public disclosure of the invention.” As the definition explains, one of the things that someone applying for a patent needs to do is research disclosures, which means checking that nothing is registered before that is similar to the process or product. This is called a prior art search.
In the immigration law space, the most likely patents that you would need to protect the work you develop are software patents and process patents.
Software patents give the developer of said software the sole right to sell it or market it. Securing a patent is a time-consuming process that can take several years, and while you wait, you can market your software as “patent pending” which may add to the software’s marketing value by signaling its uniqueness and innovation. To grant a patent for software or any other product, the Patent Office needs to confirm there are no similar products in description and value. Remember that, in addition to obtaining patents being a time-consuming process, securing a patent can also be quite expensive, so before you dive into the process, consult with a patent attorney to check whether your invention is patentable, or even if it is, whether it’s a good business decision to pursue a patent.
A process patent protects specific steps and methods by “providing a monopoly for a manner of manufacture which is novel and not obvious.” Filing a process patent may be similarly time-consuming and expensive, so make sure you talk to a patent attorney before starting to get a better understanding and whether your process is patentable or not.
Trade secrets are “any practice or process of a company that is generally not known outside the company.” What makes trade secrets valuable is the advantage they give in business to those who have them. That means that not preserving the integrity of the trade secret would affect the business financially. Depending on your jurisdiction, what falls under trade secrets may be different.
Trade secrets may not be very common in the context of immigration law, but a list of clients or leads that you’ve built over time may fall under the definition of a trade secret. Some measures you can take to protect trade secrets may include non-disclosure and non-compete agreements that prevent those signing them from talking about what they know or working at a competing business and using their knowledge of your trade secrets in direct competition with your firm.
To check if your client list would be considered a trade secret, you can review this checklist to see if the information you think may be a trade secret falls under the criteria established under the most recent case law, though again, it’s always best to speak with an IP lawyer to discuss your firm’s needs!
The technology that you use for your immigration firm is just as important for your firm’s growth as it is to protect your intellectual property.
Rated the #1 immigration case management software, Docketwise helps you manage your immigration casework so you can focus on what’s most important: ensuring each client’s success. From a full library of immigration forms to client questionnaires in multiple languages to an industry-leading set of API integrations, Docketwise helps you stay up to date on all your cases, communicate easily with your clients, and otherwise build and manage your firm.