With all the content floating around nowadays, it’s easier than ever to commit copyright infringement. 

Whether it’s another party infringing upon your intellectual property or you slip up and do it yourself, it’s best to know exactly what it means and what will happen if it does. 

So let’s talk about copyright infringement. Specifically:

  • What is copyright infringement?
  • What is intellectual property?
  • What is protected under copyright law?
  • How can I avoid copyright infringement?

What is copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement is the term used when somebody uses your intellectual property (IP) without your permission. This applies when the whole IP, or a substantial part of it, is used. 

There’s no strict definition of a ‘substantial part’ is. Still, courts generally interpret it as a significant amount, so even a small part can count if it’s an important feature. 

Because copyright is a private right, it’s up to you to take action if someone commits copyright infringement on your intellectual property. 

If it happens, there are a few routes you can take. In any case, you should have hard proof that the intellectual property is yours. 

The quick and easy solution is to try to settle the matter between you and the other party. For example, you might decide to loan them the IP rights at a fair price, ask them to stop using it, or change their design. You can do this on your own or through mediation. 

If you choose mediation, the intellectual property office (IPO) will appoint you an official mediator to help both sides listen to one another and come to an agreement. 

If you can’t settle the matter between yourselves, the next step is to take the issue to court. If you do, the court can:

  • stop someone from using the intellectual property with an injunction.
  • award the copyright owner compensation. 
  • make the infringing party give up the goods to the copyright owner.

It’s worth knowing that large scale copyright infringement (if you make a lot of money from it) can be seen as a criminal offence. 

What counts as intellectual property?

Intellectual property is an original creation. It can refer to designs, inventions, brand names, slogans, and literary work. 

Intellectual property is an “intangible asset” as opposed to physical assets like stock and equipment. They may not be material things, but they still add value to your business like any other asset. 

Original ideas don’t count as intellectual property on their own. Instead, it’s something you create using the original idea, like an invention, brand name, or design. 

To prevent intellectual property from being stolen or ripped off, it’s protected under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988).

What is protected under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act?

As a creator, you have the right to control the ways your IP is used. Others can use the same idea, but the actual content you produce can’t be copied. 

If you created something unique for a company that’s employed you, then the company usually owns the rights to the IP. If you’re freelance, you usually own the rights to original work unless a specific agreement says otherwise. 

These kinds of intellectual properties are automatically protected under the act:

  • Literary work – Song lyrics, manuscripts, manuals, computer programs, commercial documents, leaflets, newsletters and articles etc.
  • Dramatic work – Plays, dance, etc.
  • Musical work – Recordings and musical score.
  • Artistic work – Photographs, paintings, architecture, technical drawings/diagrams, maps, logos, etc.
  • Specific arrangements of published work – Magazines, periodicals, etc.
  • Sound recordings – recordings of works, e.g. musical and literary.
  • Films – Broadcasts and cable programmes.

Other kinds of intellectual properties like slogans, logos, and inventions aren’t automatically protected. So you’ll need to register them with HMRC as registered designs, trademarks, or patents. There’s more on that in the next section. 

Trademarks

You can apply to register a trademark to protect specific words, images, and slogans. For small businesses, it’s useful for protecting your unique brand. It has to be unique, so you should make sure it’s not already being used. You can search for registered trademarks on the HMRC website. 

Once you’re sure it’s original, you can apply to register a trademark with HMRC. It usually takes about 4 months to complete the process and costs £200. A registered trademark will last for 10 years. 

Trademarks can’t be vague or misleading, and they can’t be the direct name of the thing it’s selling. For example, you can’t register a new kind of software as “software”. 

Registered designs

You can register an original design through HMRC. The design includes its appearance, shape, decoration, or how its put together. 

You should check it’s an original design through HMRC first, and then it’ll cost £50 per design. 

Patents

Patents protect new inventions and how they work. You’ll only be granted a patent if your invention is new; not just a slightly different version of something that already exists. 

Applying for a patent through HMRC is an 8 step process that costs about £4,000 and usually takes around 5 years. It can be a complicated process, so it’s usually a good idea to work with a patent attorney or advisor. 

Again, you should check if a similar patent already exists on the HMRC website. 

How can I avoid copyright infringement?

Your use of a particular IP could be opposed if a similar one already exists.

If you’re aware of something similar before you try to register your IP, you can ask the holder of the original IP for a letter of consent and include it in your application. 

Without the letter of consent, the intellectual property office (IPO) will contact the original trademark holder to let them know. 

If your application is opposed and you don’t have a letter of consent, you can either withdraw your application or defend it. You might have to pay legal costs if you want to challenge the opposition, and you can’t register your trademark until it’s settled. 

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