One glance at the Las Vegas Strip makes it clear that Southern Nevada
is a center of creativity.
New ideas, catchy phrases and eye-catching displays battle to attract attention.
But the city also is a danger zone for thieves who hope to profit from that creativity by appropriating protected trademarks or concepts for their own use.
"This is a city built on ideas," said Mark Tratos, one of the top intellectual property lawyers in the country. "When you have ideas, some ideas are so good that everybody's going to emulate them."
Most major casino companies and gaming equipment manufacturers employ their own intellectual property experts. Their responsibilities are twofold: They protect their companies' assets from patent trolls and cybersquatters while making sure their own companies don't trample on someone else's intellectual property.
"It's something that all the major manufacturers in our industry take very seriously and spend a lot of resources toward," said Lars Perry, vice president of intellectual property for Bally Technologies, a Las Vegas-based slot machine and gaming systems manufacturer.
What exactly is intellectual property?
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office defines it as a brand name: "A trademark or service mark includes any word, name, symbol, device or any combination, used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods and services of one seller or provider from those of others and to indicate the source of the goods and services."
Tratos, a shareholder with Greenberg Traurig, breaks it down even further.
He said there are five major categories of intellectual property: copyrights, patents, trademarks and service marks, trade dresses and related rights of privacy, and publicity.
A copyright gives the creator of an original work -- such as a book, score, painting or blueprint -- exclusive rights to use it. A patent does the same for an invention or process. Both can be registered by the Patent and Trademark Office.
Patent challenges often arise when trying to determine whether an invention actually is new, said Mary LaFrance, an intellectual property law professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV.
"It can be difficult to distinguish whether something is sufficiently new and different to be eligible for a patent," LaFrance said. "Standards are statutory, but they are a little vague, and every analysis is very fact intensive. So it often winds up in court."
A number of Las Vegas intellectual property cases involve patent law because of the hundreds of slot machines and table games developed here. Companies argue -- and sue -- over whether new processes warrant patents and whether new products encroach on existing ones.
"There's a lot of room for interpretation to determine whether it's different from what they call 'the prior art,'" LaFrance said.
Acquiring a patent can be an expensive and lengthy process, especially if it involves technology. LaFrance said most patent filings take between 18 months and five years and can cost tens of thousands of dollars, mostly in legal fees. Lawyers constantly have to revise applications and research other patents.
Sometimes, inventors who hope to save money don't patent their products and wait to see if they're approached by rival patent owners. Failing to enforce a patent
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