Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Subtle Differences of Intellectual Property Laws in Europe

By: Paul Chen

In the United States, we take it for granted that everything is so lawyer'ed that you have to have blatantly obvious warning labels on different products.  For example, you will find a coffee cup with the warning that its contents are hot.  Or as Don from this week's episode of the Newsroom pointed out, a box for a iron will tell you not to iron your shirt while wearing it.   A crack in the sidewalk is seen as a law suit waiting to happen.  Here in Poland, people see things quite a bit differently.  There are endless amount of pot holes in the streets and cracks in the sidewalk.  I have had an amazing amount of debates with some Polish people about the legal problems of certain situations.  They almost always say that I was exaggerating.  

When it comes to startups, it is recommended that you have a lawyer from the get go.  This is the advice of Lukasz Wegrzyn a lawyer with many years in intellectual property law.  His CV includes the likes of Agora, the biggest media outlet in Poland, and MTV Polska.  He says that many startups here don't really consider having a lawyer until it is too late.  With communism less than 30 years in the past, Poland as well as her former Warsaw Pact neighbors are still quite green in terms of dealing with ownership.  The concept of ownership of an idea can even be a bit too abstract for some.  However, for programmers and content creators, this concept is the most important aspect of their business.  

Last night, Hive53 hosted their first ever Legal Swarm in the Google offices in Krakow.  The guest speaker was Mr. Wegrzyn.   He stated that lawyers aren't as expensive as one would think, but they are worth the investment.  Verbal agreements are worth as much as the air that is used to speak it, one must get everything in writing.  It doesn't matter in which form, be it a text, email, PDF, on paper, or on parchment signed with blood.  At the end of the day, when you go in front of a judge, he will want to have a proof of agreement.  Without it, everything is hearsay. 
Mr. Wegrzyn also recommends having the proper documentation such a intellectual property statement, copyright, trademark registration, employment contracts, and hard copies of codes.  In the United States, ideas can be patented.  However in the EU, it cannot be patented.  So the best way to protect your idea is to be the first one execute or implement it.  With a physical existence of this program, product, or service on the market, you are insured anyone that comes after might infringe on your intellectual property.  

While it is obvious, Mr. Wegrzyn recommends that you have all coding and descriptions be printed out on paper.  After coding is printed out on paper, it is copyright-able.  Anything that exist in your hard drive or in the cloud is not protected by the rules of copyright.  He also recommends having your company name and domain be registered.  Anything that is not registered can be used by others regardless how long you have been using the domain, name, or likeness.  

Any website that uses cookies should be very clear about the fact, or the owners can face some legal problems.  Mr. Wegrzyn also recommends that the startup have a policy when dealing with personal data of clients, non-disclosure.  He also reports that functionality are not protected by IP law.  In the US, a business model or processes can be protected but in the EU it is not.  Of course, company that wishes to operate in international markets are subject to all the laws of the jurisdiction in which it wishes to do business.     Mr. Wegrzyn also recommends selling and issuing of licenses rather than selling of the copyright.  It is better for long term gain.  

Even with all the warning labels and yellow caution tapes, sometimes legal advice can be worth their weight in gold.  We in the United States have been dealing with lawyers and intellectual property law even before the days of Napster and sampling by hip-hop artists but in Poland with the startups about to hit critical mass, awareness of intellectual property law is more important than ever.  It could mean the difference between successfully executing million dollars in deals or failure.  

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