It’s an engineer’s dream — developing a successful production process then gaining industry- wide recognition as expert and pioneer. But what should be a springboard to bigger and better things, too often turns out to be a leg iron imposed by intellectual property law and the corporate lawyers who invented it.

Case in point: a lawsuit recently filed by Proctor & Gamble Co. aimed at an ex-employee working for Georgia-Pacific. According to P&G attorneys, the man named in the suit — a technologist who developed a special drying process to make Charmin bath tissue and Bounty paper towels — is guilty of setting up a similar operation to make Northern bath tissue and Brawny paper towels, competing products offered by rival Georgia-Pacific.

While it’s not my intention to pin blame on either party in this case, I have to argue from the side of the engineer in order to make my point. Now here’s a guy who developed a marketable skill, but because of IP law, he may be unable to use it to advance his career. Meanwhile, people in other professions — marketing, accounting, sales, human resources, sports even — seem to be able to jump ship any time and not have to worry about the legalities of using their experience and skills to land a more lucrative position.

Ironically, the things that make engineers more susceptible to this form of indentured servanthood, in a fair world, would be recognized and handsomely rewarded as the strength of the profession itself. One reason engineers are sitting ducks in regard to IP law is that they produce highly tangible work. A paper drying line, for example, can be seen and touched, while accomplishments such as employee improvement programs, financial analysis techniques, and strong relations with wholesale buyers are virtually invisible. Which “property” would you want to build a case on if you were a lawyer?

Something else that makes techies a favorite target of IP litigators is that good engineering goes directly to the bottom line. My apologies to Mr. Whipple and his clever creators, but if the squeezably, soft tissue was just a few pennies less profitable per roll, the obsessive clerk might have been stocking his shelves with an inferior brand of toilet paper instead. Let’s be honest, it’s not the feel, smell, taste, or image that drives profits in the cut-throat world of consumer products, it’s the design and manufacturing technology. If you’re closely involved with either, you’re not likely to cash in on your skills elsewhere without a fight.

In fairness, I can understand why big companies throw their weight around when they believe their assets are at stake. Businesses can’t last long if every time they invest in new technology their competitors level the playing field. Going to court, however, is a last resort — the lesser of two evils. Not only does it send an alarming message to present and future employees, it sours community relations and can make recruiting extremely difficult. So, even if Proctor & Gamble prevails, who really wins in the end but the lawyers?

What is perhaps most regrettable about this case, like the majority of IP cases, is that it probably could have been avoided. It’s not that difficult to figure out. Just keep your engineers content and you won’t have to keep them under lock and key. I suspect, however, that P&G’s top engineers aren’t making what the company’s top attorneys or marketing people make. Nor are they getting the same opportunities and recognition. I bet there’s not one engineer among P&G’s corporate officers, or Georgia-Pacific’s for that matter.

That’s why we have IP law, and why I don’t like it. It’s big business’ way of controlling the very people who make it work. It’s a menace both to free trade and individual rights, and it’s getting out of control.

Where it’s heading is anyone’s guess. Maybe we’ll see someone develop a gadget like the one used in “Men in Black.” With one wave of a wand, everything an engineer knows about a company’s proprietary technology will be erased, quickly and humanely. Don’t laugh. Intellectual property law has just about the same effect, and no one seems to object to that.

– Larry Berardinis