Editor’s note: An in-depth Q&A interview with a leading figure in the high-tech economy is a regular Tuesday feature of Local Tech Wire.When it comes to technology, from understanding how it works to protecting intellectual property related to IT, and the law, few lawyers in North Carolina have as much experience as Sam Byassee.
And in these turbulent times, it seems tech firms need attorneys more than ever.
One of the first in the legal profession to aggressively embrace the Internet nearly a decade ago, Byassee recently ended his 20-year tenure as a partner with Smith Helms Mulliss & Moore, LLP, to join Maupin Taylor & Ellis, P.A. in March.
Byassee, whose practice focuses solely on intellectual property and technology, recently sat down with Local Tech Wire to talk about the state of tech — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Tell me about your decision to come to Maupin Taylor and why the move after investing so much in Smith Helms?
Simply, the partners were splitting and moving in a direction that didn’t hold technology business as center stage. It was emerging into two directions and I wanted a third. Maupin Taylor & Ellis (MTE) has thought about how the Triangle business environment is changing and about what steps the firm will take to evolve in order to continue serving its clients.
I think this firm and the way I view the role of an attorney is very similar: to help reduce, as much as is practical, the legal uncertainties arising from business transactions and relationships. Knowing the law just isn’t enough.
To be effective, a lawyer must understand a client’s business, how a client intends or believes that a particular transaction or relationship will affect that business, and, lastly, explain the likely legal effects on a client’s business which result from those transactions or relationships.
What’s your focus been moving into Maupin?
My practice will continue to concentrate on providing legal advice regarding technology transactions that include ownership and transfer of intellectual property rights, licensing agreements, e-commerce and internet-infrastructure contracts. On the relationship side, IP rights arising from employment, compliance with governmental regulations and business procedures to protect IP rights, plus, trade secret and confidentiality obligations.
What do you tell people about intellectual property?
It’s the commercialization value of an intangible asset. At this stage it’s important to distinguish between ideas and assets. Ideas have no value until some is able to make commercial use of them. To begin the process, there needs to be proof that the idea is viable.
What trends do you see in high-tech moving forward in the next two to three years?
First, there’s a huge legislative effort by the entertainment industry to enact mandatory copy protection schemes that will preserve the industry’s traditional economic interest in its intellectual property rights. Because no such scheme addresses how creation and use of electronic copies alter the economic relationship between publisher and consumer, none of the proposals will be successful (even if enacted).
Second, a much wider adoption of wireless technology will create massive security problems for protecting the confidentiality of personal and other sensitive data.
Finally, a transition from debates about the ethics of various biotechnical advances to debates about the nature and content of governmental schemes to monitor and regulate the commercial implementation of these advances.
What do you see as new opportunities in the marketplace?
The office in RTP offers greater convenience and better opportunities to meet with RTP-based technology clients. Plus, it also has a greater firm awareness of importance of technology sector to local and national economy and the need to provide legal services aimed at these clients.
What legal steps do technology firms need to be taking to protect their rights?
Plan ahead. Keep track of your technology, and take the steps required to protect it formally. Moreover, never enter into a transaction with the expectation that the legal system provides an adequate substitute for full performance by the other party. Legal advice is a prime example of the principle that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Did I say plan ahead?
What kind of impact did the Andersen and Enron case have, and is still having on how firms do business?
It’s opened up questions of trust more than anything. There will be a greater appreciation of the need for and benefits of an “independent” examination of a public entity’s business affairs. There will be more awareness of the potential consequences of adoption of business techniques that appear to finesse the need to comply with “inconvenient” disclosure or reporting requirements. By the way, these requirements were designed to protect outside investors vis-Ã -vis inside investors. It will allow lawyers to do their jobs without worrying if the critical opinion will cause more tension to the attorney/client relationship.
I also believe we will see a degree of safe harbor for independent auditors and law firms against complaints or adverse actions by corporations to unpopular advice and opinions rendered by those independent entities.
What about the Big-5 accounting firms?
Some re-evaluation by law firms about whether the Big-5 accounting firm business model works. Whether it provides the most effective way of providing legal services, or at least a greater consideration of the dangers posed by that model.
What accomplishment are you most proud of in the past year?
Other than keeping clients out of lawsuits, I suppose it is election to chair the American Bar Association Section of Science & Technology Law, which is the group within that national lawyers’ organization which analyses and debates legal issues that arise from or that may affect recent advances in science and technology. The Section also develops programs, recommendations and proposals to assist the legal system in dealing with those advances and to foster better understanding and cooperation between the scientific and technological and the legal communities.
To what do you attribute your success? Who instilled in you that philosophy?
Curiosity and determination from my parents. As a child, I was encouraged to figure out who things worked. I loved to solve puzzles, both brainteaser problems and objects with interlocking pieces that required a series of manipulations. Wrestling with a legal problem is very much like solving a puzzle…figuring out how to put the various clues or pieces together until they fit.
Who inspires you?
People who guide their actions by the values disclosed in a brief prayer I first heard years ago: “Please grant me the courage to change those things I believe ought to be changed, grant me the patience to accept those things that I cannot change, and grant me the wisdom to tell the difference.”
What is your business goal for this year?
To help raise awareness about the strengths of the lawyers at Maupin Taylor & Ellis in giving practical advice and solving legal problems that area technology businesses face on a daily basis. Maupin Taylor recognized years ago that it needed to develop additional legal expertise to serve the technology-based Triangle business community, and it quietly proceeded to do so.
Have you always wanted to be a lawyer?
No, if I wasn’t a lawyer, I’d be working somewhere in journalism. I was a newspaper reporter before I decided to attend law school.
What is your vision to help the legal community?
I am involved in several bar-related projects and provide pro bono representation to various non-profit entities. I would like to work to improve the fair and equitable operation of the legal system; to develop a regional infrastructure for the Triangle; and to raise awareness of and bridge communications failures caused by differences in individual experiences, backgrounds and perspectives;.
What sort of community organizations are you involved in and why?
For one, The Nature Conservancy. It purchases land or strikes a deal with a landowner to place restrictive covenants on future uses of the land . Also, N.C. Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, an organization that matches artists and craft-persons with private attorneys who are familiar with legal issues with which artists, authors, musicians, actors and other artisans typically must deal.
What is your biggest regret?
I’ve made lots of mistakes, but I really try hard to learn from them, to avoid repeating them and to move forward. I think continued regret, defined as sorrow over something beyond one’s power to change, as opposed to acknowledgment and a determination to do better, seems more to interfere with, rather than contributing to, a healthy and productive emotional life.
What was the last book you read?
Warriors of God, by James Reston, Jr. — A history of the Third Crusade, which demonstrates that roots of the hostility between Christianity and Islam over the Middle East go back at least 800 years.