IP law impacts businesses large and small

By Catherine Gannon

Ask most lawyers and they will tell you, like many other businesses, that times are tough. Corporate related legal work is in short supply. There is, however, one marked growth area in law, and that’s intellectual property (IP) law.

When thinking about IP law we tend to immediately think about the well publicised multi billion dollar legal scraps going on between the leviathans of the tech world, Apple, Google and Samsung, but in fact IP, like technology itself is now a legal issue for every business, from start ups to the biggest of companies.

When many of us think of IP, we also tend to think of patents and trademarks, and whilst the biggest legal disputes do tend to relate to these 2 areas – see this excellent article about the litigation between the big tech companies about software patents, the most common practical issues relate to copyright and ownership of IP assets.

What makes this area of law so interesting is it’s dynamic nature – most law evolves and changes slowly, but this is not possible in the age of technological revolution. Nuances and scenarios are evolving all the time.

Take the example of database rights – it is fairly settled law that in the absence of contra indications, a business customer and supplier list are owned by that company. However, in the age where data is everywhere and huge amounts of it can be carried out in a small handheld device, data is hard to pin down. So, what happens when an important sales executive leaves a company? The company will in all probability be able to quickly prevent that employee from access to the company’s computer system, emails and such like and may even be able to take control of the employee’s phone. But what happens if the employee has, as is very easy to do, backed up or downloaded his or her contacts. The employee may argue that his or her phone contacts are mostly personal friends and contacts and that an attempt by an employer to shut down or wipe a phone is an infringement of his or her rights.

This type of scenario also extends to social media accounts and there have been a number of well publicised disputes over ownership of social media accounts also. In a recent UK case, the issue of database rights and social media accounts also fell to be determined. The case, Hays Specialist Recruitment v. Mr Ions, involved a scenario where client details were on LinkedIn. Mr Ions argued that his contact list was his own property whereas Hays claimed that he had deliberately merged his own contacts with confidential customer and other confidential data and were claiming breach of confidentiality. To counter this, Mr Hays argued that the data could not be confidential as it could be seen by all his contacts.

The above are just 2 examples of a burgeoning set of scenarios where the position is less than clear. The difficulty in situations like the above is that information is so fast moving and data so valuable that the “genie” may be well and truly outside the bottle before either side realizes the implications. In the above situation, Hays’ confidential data had effectively “left the building” and from Mr Ions’ point of view, he was left facing up to a significant financial claim for breach of confidentiality.

About the author

Catherine Gannon is Managing Partner at Gannons, a niche commercial law firm in Central London which offers a range of business legal advice with an emphasis on the practical. A business as opposed to legalistic approach defines the firm.

For advice on IP law or any commercial law issue, visit Gannons website.

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