Protecting Your Intellectual Property

Protecting Your Intellectual Property


Reading about intellectual property law might not strike you as the most exciting way to spend five minutes, but bear with me – if you are a freelancer who relies on ideas to make a living, it is imperative to understand your rights and responsibilities.

Whether you’re a photographer, graphic designer or programmer, if your content or ideas get stolen then this will be bad news for your business. The best way to make sure this doesn’t happen, and there are no disagreements, is to ensure you have a clear contract with your client before you start.

How to protect your rights

But what does the law say about who owns the copyright of any piece of work? In general, the ‘author’ of a work (i.e. the freelancer) will own the copyright – this still applies even when the freelancer has been specifically commissioned and paid to produce the piece of work.

But inevitably things are more complicated than this. What really matters is what is laid out in the contract between you and your client. Indeed, there will be many circumstances where it is reasonable to agree that copyright will belong to the client – for example, if you have created a new logo for their use.

There are a couple of things you must be aware of, though, if you don’t want to be exploited. The contract should set out that copyright will only pass to the client when you have been paid in full. Late payment is a big problem for those working independently, creating serious cash flow problems, so linking prompt payment and copyright in this way is a sensible thing to do.

Secondly, if the work you have created for the client includes material that you will need to replicate in other work, make sure this is excluded from the copyright that is passed to the client. You also need to make sure you don’t fall foul of the law – if you are passing over copyright in a contract, make sure you are only including what you actually created. If you used public domain or open source material in creating the work, make sure this is excluded.

Resources to help you

You don’t need to try to navigate this area on your own though. If you are an IPSE member, your first port of call should be our legal helpline for authoritative advice on any aspect of intellectual property.

The Copyright Hub, set up in 2013, also helps to fight theft of intellectual property. Receiving high praise in a recent report by the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Copyright Hub aims to “make it easy and free for any piece of content to have a globally unique and resolvable identifier… ensuring the ability to ask for permission is done in a way that is as simple, cheap and automatic as the discovery itself”.

Although the growth of the internet has undoubtedly fuelled copyright infringements over the last 15 years, particularly in the music, film and television industries, there seems to be more encouraging news with the rise of online streaming sites. In a report last month, the Intellectual Property Office found the rapid rise of legal streaming sites such as Netflix and Spotify means that those consuming content from exclusively legal sources has risen to 44%, a 3% increase since the end of 2015.

Policy developments at home and abroad

Clearly, this is an area where as technology develops rapidly, government must adapt and ensure sufficient safeguards are in place to protect intellectual property. One of the priorities for new Minister of State for Digital and Culture, Matt Hancock, will be to outline how the UK’s exit from the EU will affect the work in Brussels to develop a digital single market.

This is an area where there could be big opportunities for freelancers. The European Commission has proposed legislation that would see the ‘portability’ of digital services across the EU – i.e. someone in Germany or Greece having the same access to digital content as someone in the UK. Being able to easily sell your content in other countries could obviously benefit freelancers, but there needs to be robust safeguards in place to protect the rights of producers. As part of the Brexit negotiations, the Government needs to confirm as soon as possible whether businesses in the UK will have access to the digital single market.

The Government is also increasingly recognising the seriousness of online copyright infringement. In the Digital Economy Bill that is currently going through Parliament, it is proposed that the maximum penalty for online copyright offences is increased from two to ten years’ imprisonment, bringing it in line with physical copyright crimes (e.g. bootlegging DVDs).

It is good news that the Government is taking online copyright infringements more seriously, but ultimately it is up to the individual to protect themselves. Self-employment is at a record high, with 4.8 million individuals now reaping the benefits of working autonomously and fitting their career around other commitments. But with this freedom there comes a greater risk of exploitation – knowing what to do to protect your intellectual property is essential if you want to build a successful freelancing career.


By Jordan Marshall, IPSE Policy Development Manager