|Alexander Graham Bell's Telephone Patent|
Intellectual property was once viewed as an interesting, quirky but relatively obscure area of legal practice limited to a select few lawyers and academics. Patent lawyers, who were also engineers or chemists, were valued by inventors and companies which had the incentive and ability to pay them to physically navigate the byzantine Patent Office in Washington, D.C., and leaf through musty documents to file patents.
With respect to trademarks, most recognizable household brands were displayed on products stocked on grocery store shelves, and advertised on a few television networks.
Copyrights were valuable to a few writers, musicians and movie studios that were fortunate enough to collect royalty checks from licensing their creative works.
Today, however, intellectual property concepts affect our daily lives in innumerable ways, and obscure legal doctrines such as "exhaustion," "nominative fair use," and "product configuration trade dress" are suddenly controversial.
These concepts affect how we communicate, how we shop, what we read, eat, the games we play and what medicines we take. They affect our schools, our churches and our children.
Intellectual Property issues are no longer obscure, as they are seen daily in headlines like these:
So why did intellectual property suddenly become so controversial and important to our daily lives?
The primary reason seems to be connected to the exponentially growing technologies that have made ideas and information more valuable than land or gold: a new form of real estate.
Indeed, as communication technology allows for the freer exchange of ideas, economic value has transitioned away from underlying physical objects and land, and toward abstraction.
By way of a concrete example, a century ago, virtually every one of the 25 largest companies were involved in shipbuilding, steel, coal and railroads. In other words, it was more valuable and important then to move people and things around.
In 2012, the majority of the top 25 most valuable brands in the world and the largest companies in the world, are engaged solely in the transport of ideas and information. Examples include Apple, IBM, Visa, MasterCard, Google, Microsoft, AT&T, Verizon, Amazon and Facebook.