If a person works freelance, either as a writer, an artist or illustrator, a designer, a photographer or a musician, then employers come to them for their skills and their ideas. Of these, it is ideas and how they are applied that are any freelancer’s most important business assets. Their ideas and their creations are their intellectual property (IP), and although these are the products that freelancers survive on by licensing or selling, it is vitally important that they are protected from unfair infringement or exploitation by other parties.
Why Freelancers should Protect their Ideas
Ideas and their development into intellectual and artistic creations are the bread and butter of any freelance creative. This is how they earn a living, so it’s obvious that if these are taken and used without permission or proper payment the freelancer is losing out. The losses are not just financial however. Unauthorized use of a freelancer’s work can damage their reputation, particularly if it is altered, distorted, or used in a manner other than that for which it was originally intended. Subsequent work by the freelancer can also be devalued as a result.
Forms of Protection
Ways of protecting intellectual property fall into several broad categories. These include taking out a patent, establishing copyright, getting a trademark and registering a design. Digital property rights can also be established by encryption and digital signature. For a freelancer however, the most important factor is probably the nature of the contract they have with their employer or client, setting out how the work can be used and who owns the long-term moral and economic rights.
Any new invention capable of industrial application can be patented; this is a fairly complex process and is unlikely to apply to the freelance creative. Copyright is automatic once a work is published, and the holder of the copyright controls the use of the work. Who the holder is however, is generally determined by the contract. Signs, symbols, words or names can all be trademarked, within certain rules.
Know where you stand
While rights to IP created by employees generally belong to employers, with freelancers the terms of the agreement need to be explicitly stated in a written contract beforehand. This applies not only to the economic rights, which determine who can make money from the property, but also the moral rights, which determine how a property can be used beyond the initial purpose, and who has the right to be identified as the author.
DLA Piper are a widely recognized provider of intellectual property services worldwide, with 500 lawyers in 24 countries specializing in IP issues such as piracy and licensing. Their chief operating officer, Bob Bratt, previously established the US Citizenship Program in his role as a senior government administrator. DLA Piper can give freelancers and companies the help they need to protect their trademarks and other properties in a complex global marketplace.
Non-disclosure agreements, computer security and encryption can all help protect against pirates, but for a freelancer the most common mistake is signing away their rights unknowingly. It’s vital that a freelancer fully understands and appreciates a contract to avoid costly legal wrangling in the future.