Own-It: Intellectual property
Intellectual property is what happens when a creative turns their output into a tangible commodity they can licence, sell or trade. Silvia Baumgart is Programme Manager of Own-It, which offers free intellectual property advice for the creative sector. She gives Kirstie Swain the lowdown on copycats, contracts and creative ownership...
What’s so clever about intellectual property?
Intellectual property can be much more valuable than tangible property, like a house. You can deal with it as you would a house – sell it outright to somebody else. That means you’re giving it away and you lose control over it. Like a house, you can “let” it to somebody else. That means you license it to somebody else. Like a house, you still have control, because you own it – but you have a “tenant”. This tenant can either have the whole house (an exclusive license) – you’re letting somebody use the whole thing; or you can rent out rooms within your house (a non-exclusive licence).
What is copyright and how can I protect it?
Copyright must be an expression of an idea. It can’t be just a concept or an idea. It doesn’t protect ideas or styles. It needs to be something on paper – a photograph or something written down. It must be original. There must be some degree of skill and labour in the work. It’s automatic on creation. Everybody thinks you have to register your copyright. You don’t. If you keep very good records and you are the creator of the work and it’s original, then you own the rights and you should be able to defend your rights.
What about collaboration?
Joint ownership means two creators or more who make a significant contribution to one work and whose contributions cannot be distinguished. We advise you to sign an agreement before you start working together. It’s like a prenuptial agreement really – where you set out what happens if you separate. It doesn’t have to be a very complicated contract – even if you just scribble it down on a piece of paper and talk about it – what are the conditions if something happens?
My mum says copying is the sincerest form of flattery. But what if I don’t like it?
Copying is taking a substantial part of an original work. Contact the infringer and ask them to stop. Send a letter saying, “Please don’t use my designs”. But only if you’re sure they have copied your design, because if they’ve come up with something that looks very similar, but it’s their own creation, then you don’t have a case. If [the infringer] can’t show they’ve developed that design out of their own skills and have just copied it from you then they can hardly rebuff your accusation of infringement.
How do I know I’m not breaching someone else’s copyright?
If you’re not sure, just put yourself in the feet of the author and think, “Is that too close to my work?” Just quickly change perspective and see if it was your work and somebody takes it as you have taken it, would you be a bit weary? If you would, then don’t. Ask the person. Or go further away for your inspiration.
Own-It is part of the University of Arts London. Find out more at www.own-it.org.
Image: Stuff For Sale Here by Hepburn Creative, available under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.