Q: My teenage son is a bit of a computer whizz-kid. He has written some computer games which seem quite good. How can be protect them and commercialise them?
A: Computer programs are protected by copyright under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Your son as author of the games will automatically become the owner of that copyright and there is no method of registering copyright in the UK. This makes it particularly important that he can prove he wrote the programs.
Make sure he keeps all his original programs and retains, under lock and key, dated first versions of the source code of the program. You should also tell him to put a copyright notice on all disks and a notice which appears when the program is used.
This will warn people that the program is his copyright. Tell him also to be cautious about giving anyone the games to try out. They could easily copy them without his permission.
He should then think about commercialisation. Before he approaches any computer program company with the games he should ensure they sign a confidentiality agreement and should then ensure a properly drawn legal software licence is entered into.
Some youngsters have started computer companies through direct mail by placing advertisements in computer magazines, like the Darling Brothers who are now millionaires with their Game Genie product which was produced in their teens; so your son will need sound legal advice. Ensure that any solicitor you use has experience of computer games contracts and is also aware that your son is a minor, i.e. under 18. Your son may wish to form a limited company for this reason although company law no longer allows under 16s to hold directorships.
Inventors Legal Problems
Related further reading by Susan Singleton...
Editors Note: These articles first appeared as Susan Singleton's very popular column in Inventors World magazine.
Due to the changing nature of the law, Susan has fully updated them for 2015.
For more Inventors' Legal Problems go to:
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Q: I HAVE invented a new form of folding table. A rich friend has given me money to make some prototypes. Now that we are starting to get some orders he is claiming 80 per cent of the profits. I had assumed it would be a 50/50 share. What is the legal position?
A: With hindsight you should have entered into a written agreement with your friend, even if you wrote it yourselves on one side of A4. Friends fall out and many people do not consider all the potential legal issues at the time. However, you can still enforce an oral contract. If you agreed a 50/50 profit share with your friend and can prove it then that will be your "agreement" with him.
You invented the folding table. You will own any rights in the design or appearance of the table and if these "appeal to the eye" you may wish to register them as a registered design in your own name. It is possible you may be able to patent your invention too - speak to a patent agent and there may be copyright in your drawings.
Unless there is agreement to the contrary with your friend then you will own the rights, not your friend. You could agree to terminate any agreement between you amicably and take your invention and exploit it alone. Since October 2014 the ownership position for design rights is the same as copyright so there will be no difference depending on which rights are involved.
However, your friend may own the physical material in the prototypes. A proper agreement would have dealt with these issues in full. For the future consider having a solicitor cast an eye over a short contract you draw up yourself, obtaining estimates of costs first. It can save trouble later and is only likely to cost an hour of two of the solicitor's time, say £240-£500.
Q: My uncle has just died and I am his sole heir. I understand he owns various patents and other inventions. What happens to them?
A: Intellectual property rights are assets as much as houses, paintings and money in bank accounts. You will inherit his rights. If it is patent rights or other registered rights, such as trade marks or registered designs then the UK Intellectual Property Office needs to be informed and your details included as the new owner. Remember that patents only last for 20 years maximum and that you will have to pay renewal fees.
Immediately try to track down any licensing agreements your uncle had. There may be an income stream from royalties you can also take over, but read the licence agreement carefully - it may terminate on his death. If so make sure the licensee stops using your uncle's rights. Alternatively licensees may wish to buy out the rights and, if you are not really interested in technology exploitation you should consider offering the rights for sale. Check if any written contracts say what happens in the event of your uncle's death.
If you have inherited unregistered rights such as copyright, note that copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years so you should have royalties for another 70 years assuming his books, music etc. are still in print. If your uncle's estate is liable to inheritance tax then it is possible you may have to sell these rights in order to pay the bill. Take legal advice
Q: I Invented a clever sounding name for my business under which name I sell my goods. I have just had a threatening letter from a large company saying they own the name. What should I do?
A: You should have done a registered trade mark search and a company name search before choosing your name. If the other company has a registered trade mark in the class which covers the goods you sell they can prevent you from using that name. However, if they have never used the name, or if it's only slightly similar and not confusing, you may be able to keep your use of the name.
Remember though that the Trade Marks Act 1994 gave trademark owners rights to prevent others using their trade mark for goods or services in a class where they have no registration; which may be for completely unrelated goods; or if you are taking undue advantage of their mark; or your use is detrimental to their mark. If neither name is registered it could be a case of proving passing-off. You should take legal advice, check their mark is registered and try to agree a settlement or negotiate a licence from them to use the name. Note that unjustified threats of trade mark infringement are against the law under the 1994 Act, so if they have no grounds you could obtain a court declaration that you have the right to use the trade mark you use.