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Front Page - Friday, November 17, 2017

Boyd's niche: Bringing order to tangled web

In high school, intellectual property attorney Autumn Witt Boyd took lessons to sharpen her lyrical soprano voice, performed in theater productions and dreamed of being an opera singer with its “big production and the makeup and the costumes and the stage names.”

She also loved the idea of being a news hound, so at Indiana University, she majored in journalism and English and worked for the student newspaper, editing the opinion page, copyediting and writing articles while still entertaining the possibility of a musical career. But she soon learned that neither vocation was as glamorous as she’d envisioned.

“I kind of saw what it actually looked like to be an opera singer, and it’s a very traveling life,” says Boyd, 37. “I also realized that I wasn’t that good, which is a good lesson to learn early. I am not a superstar.”

Today, Boyd’s stage is helping business owners and others understand that just because something is on the internet does not mean it is in the public domain. She runs her legal business online and focuses on other online businesses, many run by women. Boyd also has a podcast, so it’s been an interesting journey for the Chattanoogan. A lawsuit against publishing titan McGraw-Hill added to the adventure.

Lots of questions

Halfway through college, it occurred to Boyd that journalism would require a lot of moving, at least during the early years as she established herself in increasingly larger markets.

“So, I looked at what my skills were and the things that I enjoy,” she says. “I really liked the writing and the research and interviewing people. I love talking to people. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job.

“My husband fusses with me,” she adds, grinning. “He says I ask too many questions, all the time. … So, I looked at what other jobs might use those skill sets, and law seemed to me like it could be a good fit.”

In 2004, the Tennessee native – she’s lived from Murfreesboro to Memphis – graduated at the top of her class at Vanderbilt University Law School with awards in entertainment and criminal law. Despite her background in music and theater, she steered away from entertainment law because it focused so much on reviewing contracts and “seemed kind of boring. Litigation, when you’re in law school, seems much more flashy and fun.”

Boyd accepted a clerkship with Judge Curtis L. Collier in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, the federal court in Chattanooga, and moved to the Scenic City, which she’d only visited once before. A job was waiting for her in Nashville, so she thought she’d be leaving when the stint ended. “But I just totally fell in love with Chattanooga,” she explains.

After two years of writing first drafts of opinions, managing civil and criminal case dockets and assisting in trials, the new attorney went to work at Chambliss, Bahner and Stophel, where she practiced commercial litigation in contract disputes, product liability cases and lawsuits filed on both sides.

In her first trial, she and her colleagues represented one of two Burger King franchisees involved in a dispute over the purchase of several restaurants. Boyd served as third chair, working mostly behind the scenes.

“I loved it, and it was go, go, go,” Boyd recalls. “It was all the adrenaline and the energy. They were really wonderful to me at Chambliss. They took me along to depositions, and they let me argue a motion during that trial. I was a third-year lawyer, and it wasn’t a very important motion. But it let me get up and talk and get my feet wet a little bit.”

The textbook game

She occasionally handled a few intellectual property transactions, but there weren’t enough of those to justify specialization in the field. When a boutique copyright litigation firm in Colorado needed a local attorney to file suit on behalf of the family of a well-known Chattanooga artist, they called Boyd.

The case ended in 2008, and Harmon & Seidman hired her full time, creating a telecommuting position for her after she initially turned down the post because she didn’t want to move west. (Ironically, her now-husband David had just moved here from Denver.)

With Harmon & Seidman, she helped plaintiffs across the U.S., mostly photographers and stock photo agencies, protect their copyrighted works from infringement.

Her seven-year run with the firm culminated in 2014 with a major jury trial in Philadelphia in which she represented a stock photo agency filing suit against McGraw-Hill.

“What the textbook publishers had done for years – and pretty much all the major publishers did this – was request a license for a limited number of copies,” Boyd explains. “So, they’d say, ‘We’re going to print 50,000 copies. We’re going to publish in North America. We’re going to only do it in English.’

“Then they’d file that license away, and I don’t know if it was that the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing or if there was something more to it than that, but they pretty much ignored the license terms, and then they would print however many they wanted.”

Unlike some publishers that were eager to settle out of court, Boyd asserts, McGraw-Hill was “one that was not going to back down.” At the end of the four-week trial, however, the jury returned a verdict in favor of her client.

Her own firm

Despite the victory, Boyd was so exhausted from all the traveling, arguing cases in court and caring for her young twin boys back at home that she considered ditching her legal career and working in public relations, non-profit management or another field that would give her the flexibility she needed.

“I made a list of all the things I liked about law, and all the things I didn’t like, and all the things I didn’t like were very much tied to the kind of litigation practice that I had been in,” says Boyd, who considers herself more of a “cheerleader,” collaborator and encourager.

“It was very contentious. The opposing counsel was often very ugly and demeaning, and I would just feel very defeated at the end of the day sometimes. … It was more the dispute part of it that just made me crazy. Some people really love that part and get energy from it, and I just found that I’m not that person.”

In 2015, she launched her namesake firm in the Business Development Center on Cherokee Boulevard, where she focuses on intellectual property law, still a small legal niche in Chattanooga.

“Moving from a litigation practice to now mostly a transactional practice, I was able to keep the things that I liked, which were talking to clients, getting to know their story, learning about their company or what they’re passionate about, the writing and research – you know, the actual legal work,” she points out.

At first, Boyd concentrated on start-ups but quickly found she was better suited to helping online business owners who were on the fast track but weren’t being served by traditional law firms or didn’t feel comfortable around them.

Most of her clients are dynamic millennial and Gen X women running companies like Boss Mom, Indie Shopography and Abundant Mama. Like Boyd, they are striving to balance budding careers and young families.

“It’s not on purpose, and I do have male clients,” she acknowledges of her female demographic. “But I think women enjoy working with other women. People tell me that just the idea of talking with a lawyer can feel intimidating, so having another woman, and someone who is in a similar place in life, appeals to them.

“I also run my business online, so I understand a lot of the mechanics and the way that they’re operating.”

Although Boyd maintains a home office with real filing cabinets, along with a small BDC space for clients who’d rather talk in person, she runs a near-paperless practice, holding meetings via Skype and Zoom, managing her business with online tools and apps, and storing critical data in the cloud. She contracts with a part-time virtual assistant and paralegal, both of whom work from home.

Boyd’s focus on business owners who aren’t operating brick-and-mortar stores allows her to handle a gamut of services for them, from setting up an LLC and drafting the paperwork to hire independent contractors to advising her clients about trademark, copyright and registration issues and responding to cease-and-desist letters received by those who have inadvertently infringed on another company’s intellectual property.

“What’s been nice about finding the online business niche is that I can do pretty much everything that these businesses need,” she says. “They don’t need real estate advice. Most of them are still using contractors, or they’re still pretty small, so they don’t need really complex employment advice or tax advice. So, it’s been fun to be the go-to person.

“I’m not a big fan of dabbling,” Boyd adds. “I personally enjoy having a depth of knowledge and being able to be the expert in an area. So, having these kinds of clients where I know a lot of the answers off the top of my head, or I can do a little research and find the answer pretty quickly, has been nice.”

intellectual property

The need for a good intellectual property attorney, she says, is even greater now than it was back in the day when she used to go after book publishers that ignored their licensing agreements.

Many people, including business owners, often think that if something is posted on the internet, or shared on Facebook or Instagram, it’s in the public domain and up for grabs. Boyd spends much of her time educating the online creative community about the legalities of using others’ images, concepts and words.

“Honestly, a lot of times people don’t know that they’re doing anything wrong,” she says. “[It’s] not just about defending your own copyrights, but making sure that you’re using other people’s work the right way, because they can put you at a great risk with your business. If you get sued for copyright infringement, that could be $150,000 per work.

“If you use five photos without permission, that can put you out of business really quickly. So, it’s a huge problem, as people just do a Google image search and then start grabbing pictures.”

Although she has never worked as a journalist, Boyd uses those skills to market her firm through her own Legal Road Map podcasts, which she shares with clients and others through her website and iTunes. She got the idea after noticing that podcasters who interviewed her about legal advice often hired her afterward, and so did her listeners.

“I think it is kind of an intimate experience when you’re in someone’s ear,” she adds. “They get a sense of what it would be like to work with that person from hearing the conversation.”

In her first round of 12 podcasts, she guided new business owners through basic questions about copyright and trademark basics, forming an LLC, and the importance of contracts. More recently, she created a series of interviews with high-achieving entrepreneurs in the online world.

The podcasts, among other things, have helped establish Boyd as a thought leader in the online community. A member of the executive committee of the Intellectual Property section of the Tennessee Bar Association, she frequently speaks at conferences, seminars and workshops about intellectual property, negotiation tactics and business strategies.

Boyd also does a lot of local volunteer work, so much so that her spouse, who owns a construction estimating company, now insists she only serve on one non-profit board at a time. She joined the Junior League of Chattanooga when she moved here and is now a sustaining member.

As past president of Chattanooga Friends, a service organization for young professionals, she has raised funds for philanthropic groups that help women and children while connecting career-minded Millennials. She has also volunteered her time with Kids on the Block and Common Cents, a financial literacy program for children and teens, and offers free legal aid through Co.Starters, a 9-week, small-group program at The Company Lab that helps wanna-be entrepreneurs test their ideas for projects, charitable organizations, and socially responsible businesses.

“I have a strong heart for service,” Boyd says. “I’ve been very privileged in life. Growing up, [giving back] was a value that was instilled in me.”

A singer with the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera chorus before she had children – in addition to 6-year-old twins, Sam and Tyson, she is also mom to a baby girl, Vivian – Boyd hopes to join the choir at her church sometime in the future. For now, what little spare time she has is spent monogramming clothes for the kids, tackling home improvement projects, and walking outside to “decompress.” She is currently training to run a half-marathon.

Within the next couple of years, Boyd hopes to expand her solo practice into a full-service law firm for online and creative entrepreneurs and bring in additional attorneys with whom she can draw “the super stars in the online world,” such as socially conscious digital life coach Marie Forleo or Pat Flynn, who helps online business owners optimize their passive income. She also wants to teach other lawyers how to build their own virtual firms.

For now, she is glad to have found a niche that feels right.

“The best part is that I get to help women every day who are building businesses that allow them to build the kind of lives that they want to live,” Boyd says. “I feel like that is what opening my own business has given me. I am pretty much living the life of my dreams right now, and I get to help other people do that and build sustainable, profitable businesses that are going to last.”