Irrespective of whether you support the overzealous protection of intellectual property (“IP“) or believe in a more open-source world, one thing is certain in the world of technology and IP – the greatest economic value of IP stems from its use in licensing arrangements. Whether for commercial or development reasons, the concepts remain the same. The registration of IP is only your first step in a long and complex dance with any entrepreneur, service provider or developer who you wish to collaborate with.
The unique thing about IP is that it is subject to constant development. This means that new stand-alone IP can develop from base IP, thereby attracting unique and new avenues to attract its own separate IP.
This starts to blur the lines of ownership when more than one party is involved and the failure to properly regulate these relationships can mean the death of innovation; as the once exciting venture is distilled down to a playground battle with the participants’ crying over sand in their eyes.
This blog post serves to touch on the basic legal concepts which form part of standard commercial agreements involving IP. It also highlights what you need to start thinking about to ensure that the boundaries of ownership and use are clearly set out from the get-go.
In most licensing agreements there is a distinction between ‘Background IP’ and ‘Foreground IP’. Background IP is the term used to define that IP which the respective parties own prior to performing under an agreement, or IP that is developed or conceived independently of the agreement. ‘Foreground IP’, on the other hand, is usually used to define new IP developed in terms, and during the subsistence, of an agreement. An important element of these distinctions is that not only does Background IP lead to the creation of Foreground IP, but Background IP is often linked to Foreground IP and the ability to exercise it.
These concepts exist to protect and regulate one of our most basic human tendencies derived from those even our most primary of conquerors practiced, think “Veni, Vidi, vici”. Basically, what’s mine is mine and in some cases (especially where you fail to regulate your IP properly) what’s yours is mine too.
So to avoid being the subject of someone’s Odyssey, standard agreements usually start off with a definition of these two terms, thereby creating a split between each party’s IP prior to entering the agreement and the IP created from the agreement. This allows for the protection of each party’s previously developed IP and ensuring that any new IP is regulated by the terms of the agreement.
Regarding ownership of Foreground IP, different models will be appropriate in different sets of circumstances. For example, where an agreement opts for Foreground IP to be jointly owned, administration becomes a problem as every party must be consulted and agree on any further use, development or commercial exploitation of such IP. Further frustration can be present where an agreement doesn’t regulate a breakdown, as this could in effect mean that one party could potentially hold ransom the further exploitation and commercialisation of the IP.
This second aspect in the above examples highlights the use component of IP licensing. Irrespective of whether you are licensing your Background IP to a partner or joint venture so as to create the Foreground IP, or whether you agree that one of the parties owns the Foreground IP so as to licence it to the other, the extent of a party’s use or participation in the particular IP is regulated by a use license.
The most renowned types of licenses which you should start to become familiar with include exclusive and non-exclusive licenses. From a high level, a non-exclusive licence will potentially grant a licensor the unfettered freedom to exploit the IP without giving the other party any say, as well as the ability to allow other licensees to exploit the same IP. Whereas an exclusive licence could potentially limit both licensor and licensee from exploiting the IP.
It is crucial to understand that your unique circumstances will guide which licence is the best option for you and the onus will be on you to ensure that you are aware of the effects of such a license. Inevitably, you will have to ensure that the licence reflects what was in fact agreed to and that you are not the recipient of a very attractively constructed Trojan Horse.
This blog post was only intended to open your mind to concepts tied to the complex nature of IP. It also provided some insight into how various commercial and licensing arrangements can impact on both ownership and use of your own Background IP, as well as any Foreground IP, which you may have had a hand in creating. A competent practitioner who can truly understand your offering and your vision for the future can make this process a breeze. With years of academic and practical experience in both IP and commercial law, our team here at Dommisse Attorneys is well placed to assist you with developing your IP strategy and to translate this into a clear and succinct agreement, thereby avoiding the exchange of any unruly phrases like “Et Tu, Brute?”.