Before you start writing your thank you cards for all the lovely gifts you’re about to receive, you may want to think carefully about what you say and whether it could be used against you.

I’m sure you’ve all read about the Mail on Sunday publishing a private letter from Meghan to her father earlier this year.  This led to an announcement from her and Prince Harry that they are planning to sue the paper, along with its parent company Associated Newspapers.  What may not be obvious is that Ms Markle is going be arguing that the copyright in the letter belongs to her, even though she sent it to her father.  What may surprise you, is that she may well be right!

Under UK copyright law, the ‘author’ is the owner of a literary work.  This means that although Thomas Markle would own the physical paper and ink, Meghan would own the content of the letter, as she wrote it.

But this doesn’t mean that the royals will win?   Well nothing is guaranteed in my world, as there are always exceptions.  Each of the copyright exceptions have specific requirements that must be followed in order to benefit from them.

In this case, the paper may argue that they are covered by the exception of reporting on current events, for which they will have to show that the use of the material is fair.  I can’t see that applying to anything you put in your thank you cards!

The royals are no strangers to legal action of this type.  In 2006, Prince Charles sued also Associated Newspapers for copyright infringement and breach of privacy after they published extracts from his diary. In that case, it was found that the prince was the owner of the copyright and that in publishing quotes from the diary the newspaper had infringed that copyright. Associated Newspapers argued that the copyright exception of news reporting would apply here, but the court found that the journal had been used for the purpose of reporting on the contents of the journal itself as opposed to reporting on current events.

Although you may not be in receipt of any confidential royal letters any time soon, and I doubt you’d be interested in posting about the Christmas cards that are sent to you, you may still receive things that you want to share with others.  For example, testimonials and reviews can be a good way to build your on line presence, but if you receive a thank you letter from a client, does that give you the automatic right to publish it on your website?  Possibly not, as the actual words used in a testimonial may be protected by copyright.

The bottom line is, if they are not your words, then you probably can’t use them without permission.

For more advice on how to avoid infringing intellectual property rights in your business, contact for our free guide.

Kleyman & Co Solicitors.  The full service law firm.  Worth our weight in words!