In a nutshell
Copyright lawyers, patent attorneys and trademark attorneys work to protect their clients’ intellectual property assets. Technical solutions to technical problems are deemed to be inventions, usually protectable via patents that provide their proprietor with the exclusive right to stop others working in the claimed area for a period of usually up to 20 years. Preparing a patent specification is a highly specialised task requiring particular scientific/technical expertise and knowledge combined with an understanding of the complex application procedures.
Trademarks used to sell goods or services are protectable by way of a registration procedure and provide a potentially perpetual monopoly right. The aesthetic shape and way a product is designed is also protectable via registered design protection for a limited period of time. Unregistered rights also exist for a time for various designs of products. Copyright, on the other hand, lasts during the lifetime of the creator and for a period after their death, and arises automatically on the creation of such products as music, artwork, works of literature or reference, databases, and web pages.
A single product (e.g. a mobile phone) will be protected by several different forms of IP in countries all around the world. For would-be competitors wanting to make or sell something similar, a first costly hurdle is simply finding out what these rights are and who owns them. In the worst-case scenario, getting it wrong or overlooking an IP right might result in being on the wrong end of a court injunction or costly damages (fearsomely so in the US), and ignorance is no defence! The work of an IP lawyer is not only specialist in itself, but increasingly it requires close collaboration with other specialists in areas such as IT, media, competition, telecommunications, life sciences and employment.
What lawyers do
- Search domestic, European and international registers of patents, trademarks and registered designs to establish ownership of existing rights or the potential to register new rights.
- Take all steps to protect clients’ interests by securing patents, trademarks and registered designs; appeal unfavourable decisions; attack decisions that benefit others but harm the lawyer’s own client.
- Write letters to require that third parties desist from carrying out infringing activities or risk litigation for damages and an injunction.
- Issue court proceedings and prepare cases for trial by taking witness statements, examining scientific or technical reports and commissioning experiments and tests. Junior lawyers may find themselves conducting consumer surveys and going on covert shopping expeditions.
- Instruct and consult with barristers. Solicitor advocates can appear in the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court; the advantages of having a specialist IP barrister for higher court hearings are obvious.
- Draft commercial agreements between owners of IP rights and those who want to use the protected invention, design or artistic work. The most common documents will either transfer ownership or grant a licence for use.
- Work as part of a multidisciplinary team on corporate transactions, verifying ownership of IP rights and drafting documents enabling their transfer.
Realities of the job
- Lawyers must be able to handle everyone from company directors to inventors. Clients come from manufacturing, the hi-tech sector, engineering, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, universities and scientific institutions, media organisations and the arts.
- A degree in a relevant subject is common among patent lawyers. Brand and trademark lawyers need a curiosity for all things creative and must keep up with consumer trends. Both need a good sense for commercial strategy.
- Attention to detail, precision and accuracy are all important. You must be meticulous, particularly when drafting, as correct wording is imperative. Every aspect has a time limit. In trademark, design filings and prosecution, you will live by deadlines.
- In patent filing, procurement and strategy, you’ll need to work seamlessly with a patent attorney. There are hardly any solicitors who are also patent attorneys (and vice versa).
- The volume of information and paperwork involved can be huge on patent matters, though on the plus side you could get the opportunity to visit research labs or factories to learn about production processes etc.
- The stakes can be high. Commercial research and development in the pharmaceutical sector is motivated by profit, not philanthropy. The investment involved will have been colossal, and even a day’s loss of sales can be eye watering. Success or failure in litigation can dramatically affect a company’s share price.
- Manufacturing, pharmaceutical and research companies usually employ patent specialists and there tend to be in-house legal teams at all the larger companies. In the media, major publishers and television companies employ in-house IP lawyers.
- During a recession, research and development budgets are slashed as companies hunker down and take their eyes off their ambitions. This means fewer products will need patenting, licensing and copyrighting. However, the tech sector is looking resilient during this recession; if anything the pandemic has been something of a heyday for the tech sector. And the pandemic has naturally generated life sciences patenting work.
- Post Brexit, the UK is required to follow EU IP regulations until the transition period ends at the end of 2020. IP protections will remain for both regions irrespective of whether or not the UK is able to make a deal with the EU. The UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) plans to clone existing EU trade marks that are held by British inventors. Applicants are being encouraged to send matching requests to both the UKIPO and the European Union Intellectual Property Office.
- In July 2019, the UK Intellectual Property Office approved a multimedia trade mark for the first time in its history. Toshiba registered the ‘motion mark’, which shows origami-style polygons appearing and disappearing around its logo. The UK updated trade mark legislation in 2020 to include moving images, holograms and sound.
- The Digital Economy Act increased the maximum sentence for copyright infringement from two to ten years in prison. Enforcement so far seems to be more targeted at copyright infringement for commercial purposes rather than personal use.
- According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), at the end of 2018 China had filed the most patent applications of any country: the circa 1.5 million applications it filed accounted for more than half of all filings.
- Intellectual property disputes don’t only concern commercial businesses. In 2012, the Welsh Government became embroiled in a copyright clash over two pictures of the poet Dylan Thomas that were used in Visit Wales promotions, which a former BBC journalist claims copyright ownership of. With the case ongoing, the government has been criticised by Plaid Cymru for spending more than £700,000 of public money in legal fees so far.
- The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) recently ruled against Nestlé's bid to register its four-finger KitKat as a trade mark after an objection by Cadbury, which raised interesting questions in the IP circuit about whether a product’s shape alone could distinguish it enough to justify a trade mark.