Ann Ford serves as US chair and Global co-chair for DLA Piper’s Client and Sectors and was the immediate past US chair and Global co-chair of the Firm’s Intellectual Property and Technology Practice Group. Ann advises clients on business and transactional aspects of intellectual property, as well as representing them in trademark and copyright litigation. Ann works with clients to acquire, develop, monetize, and enforce intellectual property assets. Ann has extensive experience in working with both mature and emerging companies on developing and strengthening brands in a wide variety of industries.

Ann is also one of the participants in the firm’s upcoming Global Technology Summit. Launched in 2008, the award-winning Summit has brought business leaders, visionary technologists, pioneering entrepreneurs, and in-house counsels from leading tech companies together to share insights and analysis into the emerging technology and legal trends affecting businesses today. For the first time, this year’s event will be held virtually, giving participants a front-row seat to candid conversations with some of the tech industry’s top leaders.

  1. As DLA Piper’s US Chair and Global Co-Chair of Clients and Sectors, what are some of the technology and legal trends you’re most closely watching?

There are many trends I keep an eye on but the ones that are currently dominating the field are centered on the new innovations and practical applications in Blockchain. I’m particularly interested in types of innovation where initially complex and expensive technology and legal solutions have been adapted and scaled for new uses. Over time these technologies that were once only used by large companies, become democratized and accessible for everyone.

For example, Blockchain has historically been thought about in the context of B2B solutions like cryptocurrency, but new consumer-facing applications for this technology are emerging. It is increasingly used for cybersecurity, to streamline business processes, to record and transfer ownership of assets, and for less predictable uses like sports-betting. I believe Blockchain will continue being adapted for consumers within the next year.

The laws surrounding Blockchain in particular are rapidly evolving, especially those involving the financial services sector where State and Federal jurisdictions want to encourage this efficient use of digital transfer while at the same time understanding that the anonymity and lack of regulation could make it easier to use for terrorist or other unlawful activity.

From where I sit as a brand lawyer who is intensely interested in the reputational issue surrounding companies, I see great promise in using Blockchain technology to help companies monetize their digital rights like copyrighted works, and to understand their supply chain in order to track and analyze sustainable parts of that chain as well as counterfeit goods and trade secrets.

  1. How is the Summit an important part of DLA Piper’s sector strategy and its approach to client development and services?

One of the key drivers of our sector strategy is to help clients “see around the corner” on sophisticated and rapidly changing legal issues related to their industries; often before they recognize the issues as potential problems for their business.

Our Global Technology Summit is helping to do this by bringing together some of the leading voices within the tech industry. For example, General Mattis is speaking to the intersection of technology and policy. Our in-house panelists from HP, Microsoft and Uber will discuss how technology companies are advancing racial equality and diversifying their outside counsel work. These speakers will be able to share insights with our clients that can help them better understand the cutting-edge work, the opportunities, and the challenges facing tech businesses and legal advisors so that they can better prepare and get ahead of changing polices and trends.

  1. DLA Piper’s Global Technology Summit combines technology, business and legal insights. In today’s world, why is looking at these areas in combination important?

Now more than ever, it is important to understand the intersection of business and law within the technology sector because both are critical for driving innovation and creating real change. For example, business-led initiatives related to sustainability, environmental, social and governance (SESG) and permanent remote work will all have legal consequences related to intellectual property protection and rights acquisition, corporate governance, international trade, privacy and data security. Business leaders will need to take all these issues into consideration as they create new priorities and strategies.

According to industry experts and economists, companies are emerging out of this pandemic into a robust economic future as if they are being catapulted by a sling. The demand for electronic and remote document execution, payment and asset transfer solutions is exploding, as businesses have recognized the lasting potential benefits of going digital, both domestically and globally. There is a growing optimism in the marketplace and pent-up demand for consumer products. There is also a demand for technology to streamline operations while at the same time focusing on research and development to get ahead of the market and fill jobs that are necessary to create these consumer products. Moreover, companies are looking to deliver more than returns to shareholders. They have reputational issues to address for their customers and their workforce on issues as distinct as civil rights and our climate. For this reason, there is a huge appetite for companies to get ahead of the trend and not be seen as lagging behind. One only has to look at the commitments being made by some of the world’s leading companies on limiting carbon emissions and opposing laws which restrict voting rights to see how this attitude has changed from just one year ago.

  1. You have extensive experience in intellectual property for both mature and emerging companies. What recent intellectual property developments do you think will most impact the technology sector in 2021 and beyond?

I believe the key intellectual property issues that will have the biggest impact on the technology sector this year, and beyond, is artificial intelligence (AI) innovation – including its related privacy concerns – and IP protection for these rapidly developing technologies AI technologies. Another big issue that will keep companies, large or small, up at night is cybersecurity.

For AI innovation, the price point for developing and using AI has come down significantly to allow AI to be an everyday technology. Today, it is used for web searches, self-driving vehicles, online shopping, bank services and digital assistants like Alexi, Siri and Cortana. The use of AI creates efficiencies and ease for consumers and creates more demand for goods containing the technology. AI also creates efficiencies for companies to streamline manufacturing and customer service to better compete in the global marketplace. All these uses may also cause consumer privacy concerns around the collection and further processing of this data.” Additional concerns may focus on the use of collected information and the transparency of AI-based decisioning processes.

With all the AI embedded in consumer and business technology, continued reliance on this use will be key: there is no going back. The issues relating to protection of AI technical improvements and applications create the need for patent protection to keep pace with the fast-paced environment so that companies can monetize their inventions/products and utilize these inventions/products without interference or interruption from potential prior rights-holders. Interestingly, while the United States Patent Office has determined that AI itself cannot be the named as an inventor (yet), AI assisted, or related inventions are protectible. In the past decade, AI patents have increased dramatically as technology companies continue to develop and innovate AI technologies and seek to protect those technologies.

The other major intellectual property issue that will be front and center for all companies will be issues related to cybersecurity. Each day, we see an increasing number of data breaches, phishing, malware issues, third party vendor vulnerabilities and the potential for a national or statewide data theft or worse – manipulation of utilities or other key infrastructure cloud system or network. While legal regulation will try to keep pace to address cybersecurity concerns, it will actually come down to the development of technologies that will affect how IP and related laws are deployed to address cybersecurity.

  1. During the past year, sustainability, and environmental, social and governance (SESG) issues have taken on an increased importance for many technology companies. What role do you expect law firms will play in supporting these initiatives going forward?

I believe outside legal counselors should be focused on helping their clients advance their SESG policies and align business goals and objectives to them, regardless of the stage their clients are currently at in their journeys.

For example, some technology companies have a very detailed and thought out SESG policy with a chief SESG officer and transparency regarding their policies. It is important for outside counsel of these companies to be familiar with the policies to provide legal advice on both current day-to-day issues, as well as emerging issues linked to the clients’ SESG goals or commitments. In many cases, companies have decided to prioritize governance, climate and social equities and work to become leaders in their space for SESG priorities. As their legal counsel, we must ensure that arguments made in lawsuits, contracts, acquisitions and legislative advocacy should not unintentionally contravene those goals.

At the other end of the spectrum, for companies that are in the early stage of their SESG journeys, their outside counsel can help them understand the consequences of taking action or not taking action light of the increasing importance of SESG.

And finally, law firms themselves have an important role to lead by example. They all should review their own SESG policies to ensure that they are in step with key clients and industry progress on these topics – and take a lead role where they can.