Covid-19 Update: We are continuing to provide our usual services whilst maintaining the safety of clients and colleagues. Read our latest update here.

Complete the form below to ask us a question or make an enquiry. We’ll get back to you via phone or email as soon as possible.

Insights

Firm pays £45,000 in damages to a competitor for copyright infringement

Posted on 25th March 2021 in Intellectual Property

Posted by

Dan Griffin

Associate and Solicitor
Firm pays £45,000 in damages to a competitor for copyright infringement

A law firm has paid £45,000 in damages after admitting to sending letters of claim written by another firm – while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it can certainly also be the most expensive!

The case has raised eyebrows amongst lawyers used to ‘taking inspiration’ from other lawyers’ work.  After all, the efficient practice of law is made possible by using precedent documents adapted over and over to suit successive clients’ instructions.  This avoidance of “re-inventing the wheel” every time is generally a good thing because work can be done more quickly and safely when the documents have been scrutinised many times before for potential pitfalls. Banks of precedent documents are either developed by the firm itself over time or acquired from specialist third party providers. 

Unfortunately for the defendant firm, they were provided with the offending letter by a barrister who could not claim ownership of the copyright because he had in turn acquired from the claimant firm (in relation to an earlier, unrelated case) and so it belonged to them.  The infringement only came to light when, while defending a dispute on behalf of a client, the claimant firm received one of their own letters! Aside from the inevitable feeling of schadenfreude, the case invites consideration of  what degree of copying amounts to infringement in this context.

Copyright subsists in original ‘literary works’ which includes standard legal letters. The Copyright lies in the presentation of the work (i.e. how the work is presented on the page) not in the ideas it expresses, so a firm of solicitors cannot claim ownership of any particular legal principle or argument.  That is why the doctrine of legal precedent does not offend copyright.

Infringement only arises where the whole or a substantial part of the original work is copied. What amounts to substantial is a qualitative rather than quantitative test, meaning the importance of the part copied to the original is what matters, not the amount that is copied. Given the content of letters of claim are largely proscribed by court rules and that brevity is encouraged in solicitors’ correspondence, this makes it quite difficult to avoid allegations of copying.

Thankfully most firms are too sensible to be other than gratified when an opponent has seen fit to adopt their drafting and lawyers usually apply considerable thought to the appropriateness of what they are adopting.  But the offending letter probably went too far and consisted of largely copying and pasting the original.

While this might seem an esoteric argument between lawyers, it has important lessons for anyone “borrowing” someone else’s legal documents. For example, while it can be tempting to copy and paste a competitor’s online terms of business or privacy policy this could very well result in copyright infringement (quite apart from being highly unsafe in terms of the appropriateness of the terms and the quality of the drafting).

The barrister concerned has since admitted a ‘technical’ infringement of copyright.

 

If you would like any help or support with copyright or intellectual property then please contact Dan Griffin from our dedicated Intellectual Property team.

Contact our expert lawyers

 


 

Paper plane

 

Get the latest news straight from our legal experts.

Subscribe to our newsletter to recieve current, dedicated, suppport and guidance from our solicitors straight to your inbox, wherever you are.

Company & Industry

Related Insights

Insights

Who to appoint as a trustee

Posted on 16th April 2021 in Later Life Planning

There are many reasons why an individual may establish a trust, whether this is created in a person’s Will to protect assets or during a person’s lifetime.

Posted by

Gráinne Staunton

Partner and Solicitor
Insights

Updated guidance on trustee meetings from the Charity Commission

Posted on 14th April 2021 in Charities and Social Enterprise, Coronavirus Pandemic

Following the lapse of the emergency measures introduced by the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020, the Charity Commission has issued updated guidance explaining their approach to charities who are experiencing difficulties holding face to face meetings as a result of the ongoing Coronavirus restrictions.

Posted by

Amy Laver

Associate and Solicitor