Because of the complexity and fast-changing aspects of computer law, a lawyer can help a businessperson sort out what law applies and how to protect a business's software and hardware.
Much of computer law is based on intellectual property law, the law concerning human creative works and inventions. A person or business that creates computer hardware or software can protect the creation by using the intellectual property tools of trade secrets, copyright, patents and trademarks.
A trade secret is information that has commercial value that is kept secret by the owner of the information. Computer software is eligible for trade secret protection. Trade secrets are protected from use by unauthorized persons as long as they remain secrets. An employer can use various methods to keep employees from disclosing trade secrets, such as having employees sign confidentiality agreements.
Once software is sold, however, some users may discover its secrets through "reverse engineering." While this does not generally violate trade secret laws, software creators can sell their software with restrictions to prevent it. For example, the software may be sold with a license agreement that grants the licensee limited rights to use, a prohibition on resale or distribution or with confidentiality notices on the packaging and screen displays.
Computer software also can be copyrighted if it is original, creative work. Copyright protection arises automatically; software developers do not have to register the software with the government, but it is a good idea and an attorney can assist with this process. Under copyright law, the copyright owner has the exclusive right to produce or copy the software, but federal copyright law allows users of software to make backup copies of software as long as the copies are destroyed if the software is sold.
Some computer databases can be copyrighted if their contents are organized with sufficient originality. An alphabetical telephone number listing cannot be copyrighted because it is just a list of data. But a database that consists of a mailing list may qualify for copyright protection if organized so that mailings can be made according to specific criteria, such as zip code or personal income.
Most inventions involving computer programs are patentable. A patent applies to a new, useful and nonobvious invention, often a machine or process. Ideas and laws of nature are not patentable, so software originally could not be patented. The courts have been expanding software patents, however, particularly if the software controls a physical device. Obtaining a patent can be a time-consuming process, and because the rate of change of software is so fast, many software designers do not bother to patent their inventions.
Trademark law applies to the names and symbols that identify computer software and hardware, such as Apple and Microsoft.
Computer crime has spread with rising computer use. People accessing computer systems without authorization can steal intellectual property, sabotage computer systems or spy on people's financial records, email or other data. Criminals can commit fraud by manipulating information in computers, such as financial and employment records. Information stored in computerized documents can be altered, which is forgery.
Computer viruses and worms have proliferated, in some cases causing expensive problems. A virus is a series of program codes that can attach itself to legitimate programs and propagate itself into other computer programs. Viruses can be used to display harmless messages or can irreversibly destroy data on a computer system. Viruses often are transmitted to computers via e-mail or attachments to e-mail, particularly exploiting scripting vulnerabilities in e-mail browsers such as Outlook. Internet users can usually delete messages or attachments from unknown senders to decrease the risk of infecting their computers. Contact an experienced technology attorney for advice on computer law issues.
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