Helping your business get the most out of IP

What is copyright?

Copyright protects creative or artistic works and is a right that controls how they may be used. The rights exist as soon as the material is ‘fixed’, i.e. it is not just an idea but is recorded in writing or in some other way. There is no official registration system for copyright in the UK, nor in fact in most other parts of the world. It is an ‘automatic’ right.
Copyright owners have the right to authorise or prohibit the following in relation to their work:
  • Copying;
  • Adapting (such as translating a literary or dramatic work);
  • Distributing;
  • Communicating to the public by electronic transmission, including by broadcasting;
  • Renting or lending copies to the public; and;
  • Performing, showing or playing the work in public.
The type of work protected includes:
  • Literary works, including novels, instruction manuals, song lyrics, newspaper articles and some types of database. Computer programs are also protected in copyright law under this heading. Names and titles are not protected (these might be protectable under trade mark law);
  • Drama, including dance or mime;
  • Music;
  • Art, including paintings, engravings, photographs, sculptures, collages, architecture, technical drawings, diagrams, maps and logos;
  • Layouts used for published editions;
  • Recordings of a work, including sound and film, in CD, DVD or other formats;
  • Broadcasts of a work.
Note that website material on the internet, therefore, is also in general protected by copyright.
Copyright also applies to any medium. So, for example, publishing photographs on the internet, or making a sound recording of a book (where in both cases the medium is changed), is still unlawful without permission.

Even if you have bought a book, music CD, computer program or painting, this does not in general give you the right to further copy or reproduce, e.g. by photocopying, or making an electronic copy on the computer. Copyright is independent of the material on which it is recorded.

Duration of copyright depends on what is protected, but in general the maximum length of protection is 70 years from the year in which the author dies.

Although not essential, it is a good idea to mark a copyright work with the © symbol, the name of the copyright owner and the year of publication. This allows others to see when the term of protection started and therefore if it is still covered by copyright. It also indicates who to approach should permission be needed to use or copy the work.

If you are the independent creator of a work that you wish to commercially exploit, it is a good idea also to think about depositing a copy of your work with a bank or solicitor and to send copies to yourself by special delivery - giving a clear date stamp on the envelope - and leaving the envelope unopened when it is returned. This can help prove the existence of the work at that date. To prove ownership, however, you should also consider keeping records of the process of arriving at your final work. This might be needed if there is a challenge occasioned by an infringement claim or action.
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