Intellectual property law: area of practice (barristers)
Inventors are not mad people sitting in darkened rooms; they are more likely to be undertaking their work at great expense as part of a commercial enterprise, for example in the pharmaceutical industry. Intellectual property (IP) law is about protecting such people’s rights, information and knowledge. For example, if you write a book you own the copyright for a set period of time and can prevent people plagiarising your work. The objective is to give people a monopoly on what they have created or invented for a limited period, so they can capitalise on it and get a return, thus encouraging invention.
An intellectual property law barrister's work
IP work can be divided into two types: ‘soft’ and hard’. ‘Soft’ IP cases involve copyright, passing off and infringement of trade marks. Passing off involves seeking to benefit from the goodwill that another business has built up in relation to a trade name. For example, if a restaurant became very successful, a competitor might try to start a rival restaurant with the same name. Registered trade names are protected under the law of trade marks; unregistered trade names are protected under the common law relating to passing off. ‘Hard’ IP work deals with infringements of patents, a relatively small and technically specialised field. In a recent patent law case, the US-based Heelys corporation, a footwear company selling trainers with wheels incorporated into the soles, acted to prevent copies being imported into the UK, which would have infringed its patent.
Intellectual property actions often form part of a broader commercial case. For example, in another recent case, a Danish company that produced flatpacked furniture started an English subsidiary, and some of the Danish and English directors of the company decided to start a competing English company using the know-how they had acquired from their involvement with the Danish company. Those responsible for taking confidential information were sued for breach of confidence and the infringement of copyright was part of the case.
IP law is paperwork heavy and barristers practising in this field are likely to spend much of their time preparing skeleton arguments rather than appearing in court. Going to court can incur significant costs for the client, so is to be avoided as far as possible. The hours are long, particularly during a trial, when a typical day’s work would start at 5.00 am and finish at 9.00 pm. Weekend working is often also necessary. A typical workload would be three or four IP cases a year, as they tend to be highly complex.
IP work is fascinating – you become intimately involved in your client’s business and pick up an amazing range of practical information. It is also constantly evolving; for example, the centuriesold laws relating to copyright and passing off have been adapted to the web and the introduction of domain names. There are also opportunities for international travel. However, the hours are very erratic and could be disruptive to family life.
Is intellectual property law recession-proof?
If anything, people are more likely to fight to protect their IP rights in a recession. If someone’s business is being damaged, they will seek to protect it regardless of the wider economic climate.
What skills do intellectual property law barristers need?
- Good analytical skills
- Commercial awareness
- The ability to relate to businesspeople and earn their trust
- A science background is necessary for some cases.
Intellectual property law pupillages
Pupils can expect to work under close supervision, helping to research new areas of law and new cases, and preparing witness statements, draft advice and pleadings. Hours are long and they are not likely to have opportunities for court work.
Types of law practised
- Breach of confidence.
- Intellectual property.
JOHN BLACKMORE is a barrister at ST JOHN'S CHAMBERS. He studied law at Cardiff University and was a partner in a commercial law firm in Auckland, New Zealand, for ten years before being called to the Bar in the UK in 1983.