Intellectual property (IP) law

Big picture: the key facts about working in intellectual property (IP) law

Intellectual property (IP) means creations of the mind over which legal rights are recognised and, in many cases, can be registered.

IP lawyers at large commercial firms work with their clients in connection with IP assets commonly owned by businesses, such as trademarks, design rights and patents.

Why are lawyers needed?

IP lawyers advise on the legal registration, ownership and protection of IP rights.

Some advise on the IP aspects of corporate and finance deals - for example, on the transfer of IP assets when a company is sold, or on how lenders can acquire rights over the IP assets of a borrower as security for the loan.

Some IP lawyers do contentious work, assisting clients with disputes over IP rights - for example, where one party is accused of using a logo or patent belonging to another party.

On the job

A non-contentious IP lawyer might work on the legal documentation for a licensing arrangement by which the client permits another party to make use of that patent. Or if a client is considering taking over a competitor, they might review that competitor's patent portfolio for them.

A contentious IP lawyer's work would follow a similar pattern to that of a general litigation and dispute resolution lawyer, but IP disputes in the UK are governed by their own procedural rules.

Areas of law used include:

  • IP law
  • Contract law
  • Tort law

In practice: we spoke to Camilla Balleny, IP partner at Pinsent Masons

What kind of work do you do?

I'm one of a team of litigators in our IP department, and I specialise in life sciences-related patent litigation.

We also have a team of people who deal with non-contentious IP law.

What kind of clients do you act for?

I work for clients in the life sciences sector of every size - from biotech startups through to some of the biggest pharmaceuticals companies in the UK and internationally.

Can you describe one of your cases?

We recently won a Court of Appeal case involving a patent for an anti-psychotic drug.

Our client, who wanted to be able to manufacture a similar drug to the patented one, successfully argued that the patent held by another party was invalid. We're currently waiting to see if the decision will be appealed further.

What do you enjoy about your practice area?

I like having the chance to learn about particular technical areas, which I think even non-scientists who join our team enjoy.

We get to produce technical reports and work with experts - for example, in the case relating to the anti-psychotic drug, we had a medicinal chemist and a psychiatrist. You really get into the nitty-gritty of how a medicine is developed and works.

What kind of person is suited to your practice area?

Certainly for the kind of IP law I do, you need to be interested in science. You don't need an academic background in it - for example, a PhD - but you do need to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get to grips with what you're working on.

And doing so also helps with marketing our services to clients!

What are the current big issues in your practice area?

From a litigation perspective, I think the prospect of a pan-EU patent court that's being considered at the moment.

For pharmaceutical companies, the "patent cliff" is currently a big issue - many patents are about to expire, which will have a significant effect on the industry.

Other than these, I'd say the coming of the internet age has thrown up a lot of new IP issues. For example, members of the team here recently acted for Interflora on their "Google AdWords" dispute with Marks & Spencer - M&S was found to be infringing our client's "Interflora" trademark by using it without permission to deliver adverts for their flowers on the Google search results page.

It's a good illustration of how relevant IP work is to day-to-day life and how interesting and varied it can be.

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