At $300 or $400 or $600 an hour, a chat with a patent lawyer should offer some measure of comfort for a research scientist venturing into the potential minefield of discoveries worthy of legal protection. Rather than soldiering blindly forward with research in one of the hot new areas, a scientist can always consult a lawyer to check out the patented competition and avoid intruding on someone else's territory, right?

Actually, no. In fact, according to briefs filed with the nation's leading patent court, researchers who consult patent attorneys to make sure they are not trespassing on another scientist's intellectual property could have tripled the trouble they are in.

Literally. As the law now stands, if a person accused of patent infringement has consulted an attorney but refuses to divulge the attorney's advice, the accused could be ruled a "willful" infringer and ordered to pay three times the actual damages...

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