Remote working endangers IP ownership - comment

As we slowly begin to emerge from lockdown restrictions, Covid-19 is likely to make working from home a “new normal” for many UK employees.

Line managers should ensure they frequently check in with remote working staff, says Thomas (file pic). Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

While this can be a positive development, it also ups the risk to companies of intellectual property (IP) misappropriation by remote-working employees or consultants.

Under existing legislation, any invention or IP development produced by an employee during their normal course of duties or specially assigned duties is generally deemed to be owned by their employer. When many are embracing new working practices and the UK is heading for an economic downturn, I would expect to see a rise in IP litigation disputes.

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There are multiple reasons why some employees or consultants may seek to claim ownership of IP which in normal circumstances would belong to their employer. Remote workers may adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” approach they would not consider in an office environment. Those facing job insecurity may feel that ownership of IP will help them secure employment elsewhere, especially in creative or inventive roles.

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There are certain practical steps employers can take to help ensure their ownership of any employee inventions. It’s important to keep employee duties under regular review. Line managers should ensure they frequently check in with remote working staff to keep a handle on what they’re working on.

Where any changes to duties are made, these should be confirmed in writing. Remote working often means people working flexible hours. Arguments about ownership of inventions can arise if employees consider they have been created in their own time rather than company time.

Ensuring any change to hours is documented will help protect an employer’s position. Where possible, employees should also be supplied with company-owned IT equipment. On occasions when employees are assigned specific projects outwith their normal duties, this should be documented in writing and agreed in advance.

This is particularly relevant with any firms that have revamped their manufacturing processes as a result of the current crisis. Having clarity on these matters can ensure businesses protect their IP ownership. Clearly written policies that deal with employee inventions are essential.

They can also provide clarity for employees and include details about recognition for their innovation through pay increases and bonus payments. This will help ensure inventions are discovered at an early stage, which will help staff retain control of the IP protection process.

A dispute with an employee over IP ownership is never welcome. At a time when businesses across the country are facing many new challenges, it’s important that companies take appropriate measures to ensure they are properly protected.

Neeraj Thomas is an IP litigation specialist at law firm CMS

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