Advice — The simple steps you can take to prevent your work from being ripped off or stolen

Posted 28 June 2018 Interview by Indi Davies

With social media and the internet making it easier than ever to share and promote creative work, it’s simultaneously become more tempting for others to copy and steal. This could be a photo used without permission, or a replica illustration plastered across a T-shirt. And while copying might be the best form of flattery, this could mean losing out on potential income or having your work seen in an undesirable context. Worse still, if you’re underprepared, there might be little you can actually do about it. So how do you prevent this from happening? Following our introduction to intellectual property rights last week, we continue our advice series with some invaluable pointers on how to avoid the issue. Here to help, with a shed-load of experience and expertise on the matter, is RCA’s Head of Intellectual Property, Pauline Watkins.

There are some simple precautions you can take which will help deter others from copying your work, or using it without your permission. This will also help you get the best resolution if you find yourself in conflict with a company or individual about IP. 

1. Confirm everything in writing, and keep dated records
I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to agree everything in writing before starting to work with somebody else. It’s crucial to consider what intellectual property will arise from your collaborations, who will own it, and how it might transform into revenue.

Getting all of this in writing before starting the work will also help to minimise misunderstandings further down the line. If you don’t make any written records, you have nothing to fall back on, even if you have already invested time and money on a project. 

Get into the habit of following up telephone conversations with an email to confirm key points, and keep a dated record of important creative work – just in case you ever need to prove when and how it came about. Also, using the word ‘confidential’ in conversations, emails and stamping it on your paperwork can help deter others from using your IP against your wishes.

2. Don’t assume IP ownership
Technically, the person who creates the work owns the IP rights attached to it, unless agreed otherwise in writing. A common mistake is to assume IP ownership, especially if you are paying somebody else to do work for you. For example, by default, the person taking a photograph owns the legal rights to it – not the person who is paying them to do the work. You can of course agree otherwise, in writing, before the work is started.

3. Get into using © and ™
As an emerging creative, budgets will be limited, so the rights you get for free can be very valuable. Copyright and some trademarking rights are cost-free, and also ‘automatic’ (see more here). They exist as soon as you create the work – so you don’t have to formally register or apply for these rights. Show awareness of your copyright ownership by adding ‘copyright’, or the © symbol, to documentation, websites and alongside images. The wording can be something along the lines of: ‘Copyright Joe Bloggs, 2018’. Similarly, you can use the ™ symbol to assert your unregistered trademark rights.

“Technically, the person who creates the work owns the IP rights attached to it, unless agreed otherwise in writing.”

4. Think before you share and don’t leave samples around
Think carefully before sharing detailed information with others. Ask yourself why you’re sharing it, how much detail is required and what value it will add to a conversation.

Also, avoid leaving samples or designs with others unless you really have to. But if you have left a design with someone, confirm in writing exactly what it is, what it can be used for, and that it is confidential material.

This applies even more so if you hope to persuade a company to commercialise your work, as they will be keen to keep it under wraps until they launch it. You can potentially damage such opportunities if your work is all over social media, for example. It’s also worth noting that the way you present yourself to companies and manage your business can have an impact on the way they treat your work. A professional approach can make it less likely for others to misuse your work.

5. Use written agreements, and for anything top-secret: an NDA
Written agreements can cover anything that is important to you, including how you will be credited as the artist. Even when you don’t own the IP, you can get permission in writing to use images or more in your portfolio or website. An agreement does not have to be a complicated legal document. If you don't have the funds to engage a lawyer, a simple letter signed by both parties will suffice. Emails can also be used to prove what has been agreed.

Confidentiality agreements (known as non-disclosure agreements or NDAs) control what others are able to do with the information you share with them. I would advise using a template agreement from a trusted source such as GOV.UK. However, be sure to get them signed by an authorised signatory, otherwise they may not be valid in law (see more about that here). Once signed, these are legally binding documents that are very commonly used in business to protect IP and sensitive commercial information. Do allow plenty of time to get a written agreement in place; both parties will want to review it, and you may need to tweak it – we are potentially talking weeks not days!

Obviously trust your judgement on when it’s appropriate to introduce an NDA, but don’t worry about putting people off working with you if you ask them to sign one. If they are reluctant this could be an early indicator of their lack of professionalism and good intent!

6. If you’re a student, check college regulations
Colleges vary in their IP policies for students and staff, so it is your responsibility to read the college’s regulations. Some colleges are more extensive in their coverage than others. For example, it is possible for them to claim some IP ownership over your personal projects if you have made extensive use of college facilities.

If the college owns the IP, you must tell them in advance if you wish to share information about your project or collaborate with an external party. If they own the IP they will need to be the signatory on any paperwork.

7. Learn from others
You can’t beat learning from other creatives who have been there before. Don’t be afraid to approach your peers or fellow alumni to ask for advice and tips. Speak to others who are a little further on in their creative journey about their IP experiences – good and bad! Alumni networks can also be a great source of support. 

8. Consider getting a lawyer 
Many lawyers are incredibly sympathetic to early-stage creatives and will do their best to keep costs down, so it’s definitely worth seeking their guidance to manage your IP. They really can help to pre-empt issues and get your agreements in order. If you can afford it, think of a lawyer as an investment that will save you time and stress in the longterm. 

Use your networks to get recommendations for law firms and always get a couple of quotes for work. Lawyers commonly give a half hour or so of their time for free to understand your needs a bit better. To make best use of their time, make a list of the things you want to discuss in advance, and always check if their quotes include VAT, as 20% can add a big chunk to the bill!

9. Make sure you’re not copying
Lastly, IP is a two-way street. It can be very stressful and time-consuming to receive a ‘cease and desist’ letter from a lawyer representing a client who believes you are infringing their IP rights. Avoid this by doing internet searches to see what is already out there, and also use one of the many free online search tools to check for similar IP that has already been registered by others (see here for IP resources in our further-reading list).


For an introduction to IP, an overview of your rights and further resources and reading, see Pauline’s article from last week.

Posted 28 June 2018 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: Advice
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Photography, Illustration
Mentions: Pauline Watkins

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