How to keep your online business legal

Two people having a legal discussion in an office
(Image credit: Shutterstock / Freedomz)

Intellectual property (IP) rights protect original ideas or creations, such as a brand, an invention, a design or a song. Intellectual property usually resides with the person who created those ideas, but IP can be bought and sold. 

If you copy a design, you risk infringing the designer’s IP, which could have legal consequences. However, many designers, companies and bloggers will have information on their website about how you can use their designs, and some will even permit a limited amount of copying (see question on Angel Policies). Some designers will offer you ‘free designs’ on their website that you may copy for personal use. 

Inspired by or copying: what's the difference?

A man copying from the laptop screen of his colleague

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This is the difference between a design being original (and so qualifying for protection as an IP right), and being identical or substantially similar to an existing design (and so infringing the rights of the owner of that existing design). 

In the UK, a design may be protected as copyright and as a design right. For a design to be protected by copyright, it must be original (“the result of independent creative effort”) and not copied. Whether or not your design is protected or capable of being protected by any of the standard design rights, the difference is often important only if you try to make commercial gain. 

This means that a design can inspire you to create your own, new design that has key differences. Copying a design involves using the same or similar materials in the same or a similar way to achieve a very similar result. Designs that are for sale as books, magazines, kits or PDF downloads have been made available for copying – when you pay for them, you buy the right from the designer to copy them exactly. 

How can I protect my designs?

You can lodge your design as a UK-registered design with the Intellectual Property Office for a fee, provided certain criteria are met. If you do not wish to register your design, provided certain criteria are met, it will automatically be protected as an unregistered UK design right, and be protected by copyright. 

You don’t have to apply for these rights, but there are a few things you can do to help protect your design. Mark your work, and images of it, with the © symbol, plus your name and the year you created it. This offers other people information about the project and who to contact if they want permission to use the work, plus it demonstrates that you take protection of your design seriously. 

You could also lodge your work with a bank or solicitor, or send yourself a copy of the work by special delivery post and leave the envelope unopened – this will offer proof of the date of creation. 

IP laws apply on the internet in the same way as in the ‘real’ world. This means if you want to distribute material that belongs to other people, you should get permission. However, most designers are happy for you to share designs on Facebook, Twitter or your blog, as long as your comments are positive and you include a credit or link back to the designer’s website. 

Most designers see this as good online publicity, but check the designer’s website for any information or policy they may have on this. If you run a blog, remember that it’s still good etiquette to email other people if you want to mention them in a post. 

Can I use someone else's design for profit?

A woman being punished or fired from work by a male colleague

(Image credit: Shutterstock / Dragana Gordic)

Designs for sale online (or in books or magazines) usually have a notice that states that you may remake the designs for your own personal use, but not for profit. If you wanted to profit from these designs, you’d have to ask the designer for permission. You’ll find that charity fundraising is often allowed – but, usually, profiting from someone else’s intellectual property is not. 

A company’s products may include a statement about whether you can use them for profit or personal use. Most raw materials – such as yarn, thread, paper and fabric – are fine for creative personal use and for profit. However, some pre-designed craft products (such as rubber stamps) have restrictions (called an Angel Policy) on how you can use any designs you create with those products, if you intend to sell them for profit. 

What is an Angel Policy?

An Angel Policy gives details of when and how you can use a company’s products to make and sell items for profit, plus any copyright notice you might have to include regarding the artist or the manufacturer. You can usually find details of a company’s Angel Policy on their website, and typical restrictions. 

If a company has no Angel Policy, this usually means the products are for personal use and not commercial gain. If you want to use a company’s products for personal gain or charity fundraising, it’s a good  idea to get their permission 

What is defamation?

Stressed programmer

(Image credit: Image Credit: Pixabay)

Defamation is a complex legal issue, but it’s a good idea to be aware of the basic principle. Put simply, defamation is when you say or write something about a person or group that gives them a negative image. 

A statement is defamatory if it holds the person or group up to hatred, ridicule or contempt; causes them to be shunned or avoided; disparages them in their office, profession or trade; or tends to make right-thinking people think less of that person or group. It must also be reasonably understood to refer to the person or group, and it must be communicated to other people. However, a statement will not be defamatory if it is proved to be true.

Use common sense and a bit of etiquette when writing or saying anything on the internet. Firstly, you need to avoid breaking any of the laws described already and, secondly, you need to avoid saying anything morally offensive. A simple test for this is to ask yourself, “Would I feel OK if someone said this to me?”.

Please note: This information is provided as an introduction to some of the rules governing your online activities in the UK – this is not a comprehensive or exhaustive guide to the legal implications involved in online activities, and you should not rely on the information provided. If in doubt, do your own research or consult a qualified solicitor.