NEWS ANALYSIS: Asserting ownership of your ideas work

Copyrighting creative output is not only a simple and effective way to stop an agency's work being stolen, it can be used to highlight the output of individual executives, says the CEO of the Intellectual Assets Centre.

Iain Russell: CEO of the Intellectual Assets Centre
Iain Russell: CEO of the Intellectual Assets Centre

In keeping with its proud heritage of iconic brands and entrepreneurial spirit, the UK is home to a PR industry that is growing in influence and reach. At the heart of this success are bright, creative people who have great ideas.

Creativity drives profit and the PR community needs a wake-up call to realise that, as with all business assets of value ideas need to be protected.

This issue is brought into sharp focus when agencies are competing on the front line of the new-business battlefield. The practice of parading your best material in front of ­prospective clients is built into the fabric of the ­agency scene. Ask any ­general in the arena of PR and they will have tales to tell of ­losing pitches only to see their proposals implemented by the client without the credit or ­financial reward finding its rightful home.

However, it would be wrong to only point the finger of blame at in-house operators. The vast majority act with integrity and they too generate creative material that needs to be ­protected.

Safeguard ideas at an early stage
So how can your business safeguard what is rightfully yours? When operating in the UK, the most straightforward way is to ensure that minimal detail is included in material left with prospective clients and that all original written material carries the universally recognised copyright symbol: ‘©’.

This is a woefully underused practice, despite it being the easiest to implement. As it is an automatic right, no external legal input is required for the application of the copyright notice.

The originator of a piece of work should ensure that it is tagged with the copyright descriptor; name of its owner (either the organisation or the individual) and its date of creation.

An additional note may state that the material ‘may not be used without the prior ­permission of X’, which serves to further emphasise who has rights to the ownership of the material and its future use.

The strength of PR is the breadth of its offering. Whether it is the tailored application of a media relations tactic, a campaign slogan or any other creative output, the same rules apply.

However, discussions about the ownership of creative work should occur well before any paper changes hands. Account handlers may shy away from raising the issue of copyright during the briefing process for fear of appearing obstructive or ­harming the client relationship at an embryonic stage. In fact, the opposite is true: being clear that you believe in safeguarding your ideas is proof that you believe in their worth, and ­reasserts your agency’s professionalism. The key is to get the issue on the agenda early, freeing you up to concentrate on winning the business.

Many clients will tackle the issue of copyright in the brief. Don’t skip this section in a mad rush to get to the budget page. If you are being asked to forgo the intellectual rights to your creative output then understand the consequences of this before committing your team’s time and effort. And make sure you get paid for this.

Seasoned campaigners may tell you that there is no such thing as a new idea. To an extent this is true, in that a great deal of ­innovation is in fact the recombination of existing ideas in new areas and new senses. Practitioners who assert copyright over their creative expressions should be aware that it is the embodiment of their creative idea that is being protected and not the idea itself. If a client or competitor reuses the creative expression in exactly the same way as the original creator, there would be some evidence to suggest that the intellectual property right is being infringed, especially if the origination of the idea is recorded.

Tracing ideas back to source
The reality is that the protection of the creative process needs to become part of the workings of an organisation so that measures are put in place well in advance of the pitch stage. In the event of a dispute over creative ownership, a record of idea generation, with a description, originator and date comes into its own.

Within the dynamic world of free-thinking brainstorms, the concept of recording ideas may be seen as rather boring and procedural. But it makes real business sense. An ‘ideas book’, in which staff can record ideas as they are formulated, creates an audit trail that can make the difference when laying claim to disputed work. The book (or spreadsheet) can also be used to track when ideas are presented, and to whom.

An ‘Ideas Book’ has the added benefit of attributing and recognising, the individual output of different members of staff. Agencies are only as good as their people, and the commercial bottom line is directly linked to the knowledge, networks and creativity of your team. Wherever possible, these variables should be recorded so that your business is not overly exposed when colleagues move on.

Staff churn affects all business sectors and I suspect that the PR industry may suffer more than most. Ultimately, this is an HR issue and contracts of employment should include clauses ensuring that intellectual assets such as copyright work, processes and contact lists belong to the company.

Despite the precautions you take, there is still a chance that you may be confronted with a dispute. The secret to resolving this is dialogue. The majority of disagreements can be resolved early by asking the individual or organisation in question to stop using the disputed material. However, also keep in mind that creative ideas can earn income, so don’t close your mind to the opportunity of selling on those rights.

Of course if these negotiations fail, it would be time to take legal advice. The question of when is the right time to call in the lawyers is down to the individual, but a simple legal letter can often work wonders.


Click here to watch PRCA chairman Richard Houghton discuss the protection of ideas in this week's video podcast

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