Intellectual property specialist brings advice
for a changing industry
Past generations would have marveled at the technologies that let us post a photo online, copy and paste a page of text, or shoot a design schematic to the other side of the world in the time it takes to hit “send.” They would also have trouble imagining the problems that come up when everything can be shared. Over the past two decades, companies defined by their original ideas have had to rethink the meaning of intellectual property—anything from a product or packaging design to text descriptions on a website—and how it can be defended. Fortunately, some in the legal profession have been thinking along the same lines. Connecticut-based MKG, an intellectual property law firm with longstanding ties to the music products industry, is one of the authorities in this field, having actually become a NAMM member two years ago for a front-row seat to the industry’s most pressing issues. Since then it’s taken part in several industry forums on the topic, and advised more than a few music companies on the pitfalls you probably never thought of when you first came up with that great idea in your garage. “With global commerce the way it is today— the innovations in how we communicate, the ability to reproduce someone else’s work—it really is important to get legal protection for your intellectual property as well as to ensure that you’re policing it,” says Michael Kinney, managing partner of MKG.
To date, MKG has worked with music industry companies on four continents in segments from fretted instruments to wind instruments, percussion, accessories, and music publishing. One of the firm’s experts on the music products industry is Director of Business Development Mark Kasulen, who’s worked in the industry for the past 25 years and even authored The History Of Yamaha Guitars, the first official retrospective on the brand. “The age of digital interface in design and manufacturing enables NAMM members to innovate at unprecedented levels,” says Kasulen. “However, the same technologies provide unprincipled competitors with an opportunity for copying designs and selling lower quality and infringing products. Integrating intellectual property management with product development strengthens our clients’ protection for such innovations.”
Where the music industry runs up against intellectual property law, there can be several points of friction. One is simply the nature of the industry, largely a patchwork of small entrepreneurs without legal departments or ironclad usage policies on original content. Another is that sometimes intellectual property law runs counter to normal human instincts, especially in an industry so fueled by passion for its products: An innovator who thinks of a creative solution to a problem often wants to tell the world about it—or at least post of a picture of it on Instagram. The problem, Kinney notes, is that it’s usually not possible to seek patent protection for an idea once it’s been made public, even on social media. Still another issue is what happens to ideas when they cross international borders. Because IP rights such as patents and trademarks are territorial, companies may need to seek separate protections for every country that might come into play. And as many unsuspecting companies have found out, the issues in this area can be cultural as well as legal: Where some cultures take for granted the concept of owning an idea, others traditionally see no problem in “borrowing” without permission.
Between practical experience, outreach by music-savvy law firms, and efforts by NAMM, the industry has begun to build awareness for some of the issues at stake, says Kinney. Starting next year, MKG hopes to host its own forums at industry gatherings to push the message further. What it comes down to, though, is preparedness: “This business is a very collegial environment,” says Kinney. “There are a lot of handshake deals, a lot of face-to-face agreements—but it’s important to take the next step and set some legal protections from the beginning. It doesn’t have to be the 55-page licensing agreement that the big guys negotiate. Just a short document spelling out the ground rules can make all the difference.”
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