Copyright law: the basics

April 3, 2019

What is copyright law?

All too often, small companies are so focused on trading that they neglect this important side of their business. It is essential for business owners to understand why copyrights are important. In this blog post, Laura Symons, one of our Intellectual Property experts, introduces you to some key concepts that will help you to understand why you need to protect your copyrights.


What is protected by copyright?

Copyright is a creator’s best friend. A huge amount of output is protected by it, including:

  • text and literary works
  • web content
  • logos
  • photographs
  • paintings
  • drawings
  • diagrams
  • flow charts
  • graphics
  • music
  • sound recordings
  • sculptures
  • films
  • broadcasts
  • software…the list could go on.

As long as the work is original, recorded or written down in some way and exhibits some degree of skill, labour or judgment, it will be copyright-protected.

Important to note is that ideas underlying a creation are not protected by copyright. What is covered is the expression of that idea, which must be manifested in some form or format in order to obtain protection. Indeed it often surprises our clients to learn that somebody is free, for example, to independently create a website based on the same unique idea or concept that they have come up with. What that other party cannot do, however, is copy how that idea is expressed e.g. the client’s source and object code or the on-screen text, screen displays or sequences.  

What is the benefit of copyright in practice?

If a work is protected by copyright, it means that the owner can control the use made of it and essentially prevent third parties and competitors from copying, using and exploiting their valuable creation without their permission. It gives the owner the exclusive right to reproduce, perform, adapt, distribute, sell and lend copies of the whole or a substantial part of their work to the public (directly or indirectly).

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Are there any exceptions to this?

Yes, various fair-dealing exceptions may be available, depending on the circumstances, as a defence to what would otherwise constitute copyright infringement. Non-commercial research, private study, criticism, review, reporting current events, caricature and parody are just a handful of examples. Many of these defences also require sufficient acknowledgment of the author.

Helpfully, copyright protection arises automatically at the point of creation, without the need for registration (in the UK at least) and lasts for different periods depending on what is being protected.

How long does a copyright last?

For literary, dramatic, musical of artistic works, for example, the duration is 70 years from the end of the year of the author’s death.

Must a copyright symbol be displayed to protect the copyright?

Given the lack of formalities for registration, it is advisable to take steps to alert third parties to your ownership of the work and its copyright-protected status. This includes getting into the habit of consistently marking copyright-protected material with a copyright notice. As a minimum, this should include the copyright symbol (©) followed by the name of the owner and the year of publication. This helps to show the timing of publication in the event of any ownership dispute and also helps to prevent the defence of so-called ‘innocent infringement’. The latter may be available if the defendant can argue they did not know, and had no reason to believe that copyright subsisted in the work.

Who owns the copyright in a work?

As for who owns copyright, this is generally the author/creator of the work. An exception to this is if a work is created in the course of employment, in which case it will generally belong to the employer. The opposite is true of works created by freelance contractors, which people are often unaware will in fact be owned by the contractor (unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise). This will remain true even if the freelancer is specifically commissioned to do the job and is paid for the work!

For this reason, it is crucial that contractors who are hired to produce and deliver creative output (be it online/offline materials, artwork, software or otherwise) are required to sign a written contract giving the commissioner the right to use those materials. This document may take the form of an outright transfer (or ‘assignment’), or instead a licence to use the materials for their intended purpose.

Do I need a trademark or a copyright?

Finally, it is worth pointing out that single words, headlines/titles, short phrases, names and domain names are not generally protected by copyright. Trademarks are your best bet here and you can read more about the value of this type of intellectual property here.

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We offer a free no-obligation 15 minute legal phone consultation with our Intellectual Property lawyers.

To speak to the author of this article, Laura Symons, or for expert advice on any business legal matter please do enter an enquiry or call us today on: 020 7148 1066 and speak to a member of our friendly Client Care Team.

LawBite provides quick and accessible legal advice at half the price of a high street legal company, so ensure you are protecting your business’ assets and value by protecting your copyrights today.

 

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