Who's idea is itThis is the first of a two-part series on dealing with the perils of intellectual property infringement.

In today’s tech-obsessed society we love to know what is the next gizmo that will change our lives. Will Microsoft’s new Surface tablet challenge the iPad’s dominance?

But how often does a genuinely new idea come along? Or are most of them simply different takes on someone else’s brainchild?

Ask Mark Zuckerberg and the Winkelvoss twins who came up with the original idea for Facebook and you’ll get two very different answers.

In the IT industry, imitation isn’t regarded as the sincerest form of flattery – it’s seen as theft. There’s no better example of that than the legal war raging between Apple and Samsung over whether the Galaxy phones and tablets have illegally copied aspects of the iPhone and iPad and vice versa.

Intellectual property has become so valuable these days – as recent big acquisitions have shown, such as Facebook’s $1 billion purchase of Instagram –it’s no surprise companies are willing to spend lots of money suing rivals if they suspect they have stolen their ideas.

But it’s not just tech giants who are battling each other in court. Now we’re seeing more legal action involving small firms alleging copyright infringement of their software programs.

Court cases of this kind can be long and expensive affairs and our experience is that unscrupulous firms are quite prepared to prolong them because they know that by doing so they may stop their competitors from launching rival products or could even push them out of business.
So here are a few tips for small IT firms to help them protect themselves against unwanted lawsuits:

•  Programs should look unique. Be careful not to make your software look too similar to one that’s already on the market. The coding and development behind your program may be very different to your rival’s, but if the two look alike you’re asking for trouble.

Keep your early work. It’s important to log and store all the different versions of your software’s source code, in case you’re ever requested to prove it’s all your own work. In defending claims against our clients we have asked independent experts to look at rival software programs to show our clients did not copy their competitors. If you are able to show a detailed audit trail of how you developed your program it will help an expert to decide that the two programs are materially different. Clear evidence of this kind can stamp out a claim quite early on.

•  Take cover. Even if you’re only a small software developer you’re still at risk of being sued. You may think your program looks and works completely differently from that of your rivals, but it doesn’t mean you won’t be forced to prove that in a court of law. We offer professional indemnity insurance that’s tailored to the needs of IT consultants, which can help protect you in the case of being accused of inadvertently infringing another company’s intellectual property.