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What is Copyright?

Last updated on 28th April 2023

The UK Government tracks copyright infringements with a survey. The most recent data from 2020 shows that copyright infringements were down by 2% in comparison to 2019 across all categories (23%). However, there were above-average infringements for live sports (37%) and digital magazines (28%).

There was a noticeable (8%) drop in the percentage of illegal music downloads (23%) yet, despite this, more music than ever was downloaded and streamed. Perhaps this could be a pandemic effect?

In the UK, most of us are familiar with the word ‘copyright’ and the © symbol on materials such as written works, films or music. However, how much is really known about it?

What is copyright?

Copyright is there to protect a person’s intellectual property such as originally authored or composed works. It is not something that an author or creator must apply for; it is there as automatic protection that prevents others from using the work without express permission from the owner.

Copyright protection is automatically granted when work is created, including:

  • Illustrations, drawings, artistic work and photography.
  • Literary or dramatic works.
  • Music and sound recordings.
  • Television or film recordings.
  • Broadcasts.
  • The layout of any published work including dramatic, written or musical works.

Any work can be marked with the copyright symbol (©) and the creator’s name and the year it was created. Even if someone does not include these, they are still afforded the same level of protection. In the UK, the current legislation for copyright is known as the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Copyright protection on music recordings

What is subject to copyright?

Work that has been created independently by an author with their own creativity is called original work and this is subject to copyright. Being created independently simply means that the creator did not copy any part of their idea and that its composition is unique. It must demonstrate a degree of skill or judgement, and labour.

However, to be considered subject to copyright legislation, it must be of a certain magnitude, i.e., a short phrase or a familiar design is not necessarily protected (for these, authors could register a trademark instead). Copyright for original works is there to protect the creator’s individual expression rather than a discovery, idea, method or process.

According to UK copyright law, the types of work to which copyright applies include:

  • Literary works:
    – Lyrics, manuals, manuscripts, leaflets, newsletters, commercial documents, mission statements, articles and, since 1992, computer programs.
  • Dramatic works:
    – Dances, plays etc.
  • Musical works:
    – Scores and recordings.
  • Artistic works:
    – Painting, photography, sculptures, technical drawings or diagrams, logos, maps and architecture.
  • Typographical arrangements in published editions of works:
    – Periodicals, magazines etc.
  • Sound recordings:
    – Literary and musical.
  • Films.
  • Broadcasts.
  • Cable programs.

Who is a copyright owner?

Under UK copyright legislation, the individual or group who authored a work owns it exclusively. They are known as ‘the first owner of copyright’. Having said that, if the author creates the work as a part of their employment, then the first owner of the copyright is normally the creator’s employer.

Commissioned or freelance work usually belongs to the author unless they are contracted or have otherwise agreed. Like other assets, copyright can be transferred or even sold from the first owner of the copyright to another.

Is there a copyright process?

In the UK, copyright is not subject to a process. Rather, it arises automatically when a work is created and produced in a material form. There is no registering of the work. As it is an automatic process, it is important for creators to keep good records of their works and when they were first created or produced.

This is important if there is ever an audit trail to establish whether there has been an infringement of copyright either of the work in question or of someone else’s work. A good way of doing this is by marking the work with a copyright notice that includes the date.

This is not necessary for copyright protection in the UK, but it does serve to assist owners of works in any infringement proceedings or if the owner wants their rights to copyright protection to be enforced in some foreign countries that require this as standard.

Man trying to distribute copied films

What rights does copyright provide?

Under UK copyright law, an author of an original work is protected and has certain rights over their work.

Copyright prevents others from:

  • Copying the original work.
  • Distributing the work either for free or for a charge.
  • Lending, issuing copies or renting out the work to members of the public.
  • Showing, playing or performing the work in public.
  • Adapting the work.
  • Publicising the work on the internet.

There are also certain moral rights that copyright protects which include:

  • The right to have your name identified on the work.
  • The right to object to treatment deemed derogatory.

What is a copyright notice?

Copyright notices accompany work to remind those using the work of the owner’s wishes and rights. Copyright notices are not a legal requirement and not using one does not have any detrimental effect on protecting a work from copyright.

However, copyright notices are recommended as it deters infringement because it serves to announce that the work is copyrighted, identify the owner of the work/copyright and deter anyone from plagiarising or committing a copyright infringement.

Copyright notices can be placed anywhere in the work but there are some recommendations. For example, if the work is in more than one part, each part should express the copyright notice.

  • Written work
    – With books and other written work, one copyright notice is usually sufficient, and this is usually placed on the inside of the front cover.
  • Commercial documents or leaflets
    – Each document should have its own copyright notice.
  • Websites
    – A copyright notice should be clear on each page and is usually found at the bottom.
  • Music
    – Any physical recording such as a CD or LP should feature the copyright notice on the physical product as well as the sleeve that comes with it.
  • Photographs
    – Copyright notices often appear on the rear of photographs or at the bottom of prints. Proofs of professional photographs also often have watermarks.
  • Film
    – For physical recordings on Blu-ray or DVD, notices should be placed on the product as well as on the sleeve/case that comes with the film recording. Films usually have a screen before and/or after the film itself displaying the copyright notice.

There are many familiar examples of copyright notices:

  • Copyright
    – In many places across the world, the word copyright must be displayed for the copyright notice to be valid. The © symbol alone is not always enough.
  • ©
    – A symbol that is usually used to recognise that a copyright notice is in place. The majority of countries recognise this as a copyright notice.
  • Publication year
    – The date can play an important role if there is an ownership dispute.
  • The owner’s name
    – This could be an individual or a group. An example of such a notice could be Copyright © 2020 James Jones.

Many creators extend their copyright notice with a statement so that certain conditions are met. These conditions could include allowing certain uses for your work. They are designed to be succinct and clear but not refer to any legal jargon.

Such statements can include:

  • All rights reserved.
  • Permission granted for copying for personal or educational purposes only. Commercial copies are prohibited.
  • Obtain owner’s permission before redistribution.
DVD case with copyright notice on casing

What is a copyright infringement?

A copyright infringement is anything that goes against one of the listed protections or rights outlined above. This means that no one except the owner can issue copies, show, play or adapt the copyrighted work without permission.

However, there are certain circumstances where using others’ copyrighted material is permitted. This is known as ‘Fair Dealing’ and it does not infringe copyright laws.

These circumstances are:

  • Using the work for private or research study reasons.
  • Issuing copies, lending or performing for educational purposes.
  • News reporting and criticism.
  • Incidental inclusion.
  • Library copies and lending.
  • Parody, caricature and pastiche.
  • Royal Commissions, judicial proceedings, or for parliamentary purposes.
  • “Time shifting”, i.e., recording a broadcast to view or listen to it later at a time that is more convenient.
  • Making a copy of a computer program as a backup for personal use.

These exceptions, however, are very narrow. When fighting back after a copyright infringement, there is no defence of an “innocent infringer”. Infringement does not have to include the whole work; it can be just a part of it.

The owner is responsible for defending their material against copyright infringement. Those who wish to use another’s work but do not know who holds the rights need to apply for a licence if the work is covered by copyright. Owners can check whether their work has been subject to a licence or is an infringement by checking the register. The owner can then choose whether to revoke the licence and claim the fee that was paid if a licence was issued.

There have been some large, public court cases in recent years relating to copyright infringements including Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry, both challenged on plagiarism of musical riffs. Even the likes of George Harrison, the former Beatle, has been challenged on their copying of musical elements.

What is the difference between copyright and trade mark?

Trade marks are to protect a brand such as the name of a service or product. Trade marks should be registered to prevent others from using any part of the branding or names. Once registered, it is possible to take action against others who use the branding without permission (this includes counterfeit products/services).

Registered trade marks can also put the ® symbol next to the brand which serves to warn others against its use. Also, registered trade marks can then be licensed or sold to others.

Trade marks are different from copyright because they tend to be something that is on a smaller scale that help differentiate a product or company from others. They are also used to promote a business and in marketing.

A trade mark can include any or a combination of the following:

  • Sounds.
  • Words.
  • Fonts.
  • Logos.
  • Colours.

Trade marks should be renewed every decade but, in theory, do last forever. Incidentally, in the UK, trade mark is most commonly written as two words whereas other nations such as the US write it as one.

How long does copyright protection last?

As soon as someone creates a work, it is protected under copyright. However, copyright is not eternal and there are set lengths of protection, depending on the type of the work.

Type Length of Copyright
Dramatic, literary, artistic or musical works 70 years from the end of the year the author/owner dies
Music and sound recordings 50 years since the publication date
Films 70 years after the death of the screenplay author, composer and director
Broadcasts 50 years from the original broadcast
Layouts in published written, musical or dramatic works 25 years from the publication date
Broadcast protection last 50 years

What happens if there is a change in ownership?

If there is a change of ownership, a special document must be written and signed to show that the transfer or sale of the copyright has taken place. This also comes with a fee (£50 in 2022).

People can choose to transfer their copyright by elective or partial assignment. Elective assignment is where the owner transfers their full rights as a sale or a gift. For a partial assignment, this is where the owner assigns only some of the copyright over to a new owner. This could be to a publisher so that they have the right to create multiple copies and/or can adapt the original work as a film or screenplay.

Copyright can also be transferred through inheritance should the owner die. This is called automatic assignment and does not incur a cost.

Final thoughts on: What is Copyright?

Despite the number of infringements in copyright in the UK, most people are responsible when it comes to respecting others’ work. As a final word, it’s important to remember that as soon as anyone produces original work, it is considered their intellectual property and is subject to protection by UK copyright laws.

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About the author

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Laura Allan

Laura is a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher who now works as a writer and translator. She is also acting Chair of Governors at her children’s primary school. Outside of work, Laura enjoys running and performing in amateur productions.

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