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Computer law consists of the law of several different areas, as applied to computers and computer use. 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 intellectual property law, the law concerning human creative works and inventions. A person or business that creates computer hardware or software can protect his or her 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 confidential 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 confidential. 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, knowledgeable users of the software may discover its secrets. This type of "reverse engineering" generally does not 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 only limited rights to use the software, with a prohibition on resale or distribution of the software, or with confidentiality notices on the packaging and screen displays. However, it is not clear that such an approach will be effective in protecting widely distributed software from reverse engineering.

Computer software also can be copyrighted if it is original, creative work. Exactly which aspects of software are eligible for copyright protection is being established in the federal courts. Copyright protection arises automatically; it is not necessary for a software developer to register the software with the government. 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 when the software itself 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 factual information.

Most inventions involving computer programs are patentable. A patent applies to a new, useful, and nonobvious invention, and often applies to 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 however, and because the rate of change of software is so fast, many software designers do not bother with patenting their inventions.

Trademark applies to the names that identify computer software and hardware, such as Apple and Microsoft.

Computer crime has developed with the expanding use of computers. All stages of computer operations are susceptible to criminal activity, either as the target of the crime or as the instrument of the crime, or both. People who gain unauthorized access to computer systems 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. Forgery also can be accomplished by using a computer and a printer.

The instance of computer viruses and worms has grown, in some cases causing expensive problems, for some businesses and individuals, in recent years. A virus is a series of program codes that attaches to legitimate programs and propagates in 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 mail browsers such as Outlook. Internet users can usually delete messages or attachments from unknown senders as a way to decrease the risk of infecting their computers.

Learn More: Reasons to Contact an Intellectual Property Attorney

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Reasons to Contact an Intellectual Property Attorney

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DISCLAIMER: This site and any information contained herein are intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent counsel for advice on any legal matter.

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