Business Law & Compliance

Copyright law and how to avoid infringement as a small business

6 min read

06 July 2016

Protecting your intellectual property (IP) rights is becoming more important for business owners. In the past two decades alone, investment in protecting IP has increased from £23.8bn to £63.5bn, and shows that companies are ready to protect intangible assets from other businesses.

The reason for the growth in protecting designs, logos, slogans and creative work is because there has been a surge of new startups in the UK; competition is increasing and therefore owners want to protect their clever ideas. Since the launch of the StartUp Britain Campaign in 2011, startup numbers have been increasing year on year and when the new figures are released this summer, it’s expected that in 2015 around 600,000 new companies will have been registered at Companies House.

Infringing someone else’s IP can be costly, as such it’s vital to have a firm understanding of what IP is and how you can avoid this as a new business.

What is intellectual property? 

Under the UK Copyright Service, IP refers to creative work which can be treated as an asset or physical property. Protecting IP means that other individuals and businesses cannot copy or steal your ideas; things such as brand names, logo design, product design and the literary work you produce. On the other side, it also stops you from stealing or copying other creative work that isn’t yours.

Read more about copyright:

The four core areas of IP

(1) Design Rights: Design includes appearance, physical shape, configuration and decoration. As the designer/owner you can protect the appearance of the whole or part of a product, which can be registered or unregistered. A design can be subject to both copyright and design rights. Registering your design prevents others from using it for up to 25 years and may make the process of taking legal action simpler should you have a dispute.

(2) Copyright: Applies to original artistic work that is recorded, such as literary or musical. Unlike other sectors of IP, copyright is an automatic international right arising on the creation of the work that allows the owner to prevent unauthorised use of the work.

(3) Trademarks: Can be a name, slogan, word, symbol, design or word. They are registered with an appointed government body and protects whatever you have trademarked in that country only.

(4) Patents: Patents are registered nationally and apply to inventions and industrial processes. Registering a patent prohibits someone else from implementing the invention without the necessary authorisation.

Knowing you’re the owner of IP

There are different ways that you can either own IP or have permission to use someone else’s. Firstly if you created the work, for example of a new logo, then you own the copyright. If you are a new business owner and have paid someone else to design your logo then you as the business owner, having paid for the design, will have the rights to the work. As best practice you should always double check this when you are commissioning the work.

You can also purchase full IP rights, for example from a previous owner, or be granted a licence to use the intellectual property from the owner. One example where you more than likely won’t be the IP owner is if you have created something for your employer as part of your job; the rights in this case would remain with the employer.

Tips for avoiding copyright infringement

IP laws are infringed when a product, creation or invention, which are protected by IP rights, are copied, exploited or utilised without having the consent or permission from the rightful owner. For business owners this will be vital as you could be on the receiving end of a dispute should you get this wrong.

(1) Almost everything from the internet is copyrighted, so don’t just take anything you want from the seemingly endless supply of work. It’s no defence to say “it didn’t say it was copyrighted on the website” or “I just found it.”

(2) Don’t assume something is in the ‘public domain’ just because it is on the internet. This is a very common misconception. Something will go into the public domain only once the copyright expires, usually years after the author’s death.

(3) Be creative about your work. Stay away from screenshots of images or videos that become incorporated into your design.

Gemma Lingard is a corporate-commercial lawyer at Gorvins Solicitors

Digital imagery and copy offers business almost unlimited scope to promote itself. Razor-sharp online images and fibre-optic networks capable of delivering high-definition material to millions of computers, tablets and smartphones have been game-changing, but the new landscape brings risk with it as well.