copyright question
Dear Doc:

My company makes small electronic products.  We design circuit boards and write software, selling the finished products to a variety of industries.  Recently, we found out that a former employee may have given our designs to a competitor.  Can copyright law help us?


Dear Rip:

You betcha (as Sarah Palin has been heard to proclaim)… copyright is one of the legal “arrows” in your “quiver” and you should promptly nock and draw your bow.  Then, as the Marines say, it’s as simple as Ready, Fire, Aim!  But first you must take some preliminary steps before making those thieving miscreants wish that they had never darkened your door.

As you may know, copyright registration provides certain legal rights, most importantly the right to sue in federal court, and the possibility of recovering attorney’s fees from the infringer.  So you will want to register your copyrights even though all works of authorship are automatically copyrighted when they are “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”

Under United States Copyright Law (17 U.S.C. §§101 et seq.), circuit boards and similar products may be simultaneously protected by several copyrights.  The source code and the finished object code for your software products are the first things you should register.  If the code is actually engineered into a chip, there is also a type of registration called a “Mask Work Registration” that protects the artwork for the chip itself.  Another thing often overlooked is that the printed circuit board (PCB) design itself is separately registrable.  Pirates often just copy the board itself.  Because the top and bottom layers of the board are directly visible to a judge and jury, it is usually easy to demonstrate copying, making a case just about “open and shut”.  Don’t forget the schematic (and netlist if you use PCB design systems,) because these are copied by pirates, and the same kind of simple visual comparisons are easily shown to judges and juries.

Circuit Board

The simple truth is that for companies making electronic devices that may be copied by others, having a system of copyright registration that covers every aspect of the product and is performed automatically whenever the product is revised or updated may be among the most effective means of keeping unfair competitors and disloyal employees honest, or at least, off balance and on the defensive.  The attorneys at LW&H have plenty of experience in these matters…give them a call.
— Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.