Introduction to Copyright Law

Introduction to copyright

What is copyright?

Copyright is an automatic right that applies to the following types of work:

  • Literary  

    song lyrics, manuscripts, manuals, computer programs, commercial documents, leaflets, newsletters & articles etc.

  • Dramatic  

    plays, dance, etc.

  • Musical  

    recordings and score.

  • Artistic  

    photography, painting, sculptures, architecture, technical drawings/diagrams, maps, logos.

  • Typographical arrangement of published editions

    magazines, periodicals, etc.

  • Sound recording

    may be recordings of other copyright works, e.g. musical and literary.

  • Film  

    video footage, films, broadcasts and cable programmes.

How do I get copyright?

Copyright automatically exists under law whenever an individual creates any type of work listed above provided it is original (not directly copied or adapted from an existing work), and exhibit some degree of labour, skill or judgement in its creation.

Normally the individual or collective who authored the work will exclusively own the work and is referred to as the ‘first owner of copyright’. However, if a work is produced as part of employment then the first owner will normally be the company that is the employer of the individual who created the work.

Freelance or commissioned work will usually belong to the author of the work, unless there is an agreement to the contrary, (i.e. in a contract for service).

Just like any other asset, copyright may be transferred or sold by the copyright owner to another party.

Rights cannot be claimed for any part of a work which is a copy taken from a previous work. For example, in a piece of music featuring samples from a previous work, the copyright of the samples would still remain with the original author.

How is my work protected?

The copyright owner has the following exclusive rights. With a few exceptions (see ‘fair use’ below) the following action are only allowed with the owner’s permission:

  • Translate the work.
  • Copy the work.
  • Publicly perform, transmit or broadcast the work.
  • Adapt the work.

In many cases, the author of a work also has the right to be identified as the author and to object to any treatment of the work which would be ‘prejudicial to his honour or reputation’ of the work (even if he is no longer the copyright owner).

International protection

Copyright is recognised all over the world, and international conventions guarantee a minimum level of protection in most countries, the most important of which is the Berne Convention.

While details of copyright law will vary between nation states, the Berne Convention lays down a common framework and agreement between nations in respect to intellectual property rights.

An author from any country that is a signatory of the convention is awarded the same rights in all other countries that are signatories to the Convention as they allow their own nationals, as well as any rights granted by the Convention.

The Convention also sets out a minimum duration that copyright will apply in various types of work.

How long does copyright last?

The duration of copyright will vary from country to country, but the Berne Convention dictates a minimum duration that all signatory states should grant in their national laws.

Normal protection provided by the Berne Convention is for the lifetime of the individual that created the work plus fifty years, with the following exceptions:

  • Film, cinematographic work:

    50 years from the making of the work, or if made available to the public within the 50 years, (i.e. by publication or performance), 50 years from the date the author first makes the work available to the public.

  • Anonymous works:

    50 years from the date made available to the public.

  • Artistic works, such as photographs and applied art:

    At least 25 years from creation.

Duration will always run from January 1st of the year following the event indicated.

Where a work is authored by more that one individual, the duration will be the lifetime of the last surviving author plus 50 years.

In all cases, individual national laws can, and often will, allow additional protection over and above the terms of the Convention. For example, in the UK most work is protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. There are also exceptions allowed for countries bound by the Rome Act.

What happens when copyright expires?

When the term of copyright protection has expired, the work falls into the public domain. This means that the work, has effectively become public property and may be used freely. This is how so many companies can publish works by William Shakespeare, classical composers etc.

What is fair use or fair dealing?

Fair use or fair dealing are terms used to describe some limited activities that are allowed without infringing copyright. These exceptions normally cover private research, educational use, news reporting and review, and making readable copies for people with disabilities.

The details of the provisions will be subject to national law and whilst most will be similar, details will vary from country to country.

What is a copyright notice?

A copyright notice is simply a statement attached to a work that identifies the copyright owner of the work.

A copyright notice will typically look like this:

Copyright © 2014 A N Other. All rights reserved.

The aim of copyright notice is to:

  • Make it clear that the work is subject to copyright.
  • Provide a means of identifying the copyright owner.
  • Deter infringement or plagiarism.

Sound recordings have a right separate from the underlying musical composition, and sound recordings should carry a phonogram copyright notice (denoted by the P in a circle symbol ℗) for the recording itself.

Dealing with copyright infringement

If your own work has been infringed, our copyright infringement page explains the steps to take to resolve the situation.

If you notice an infringement of someone else‘s work, you should contact the copyright owner of that work so that they can take the appropriate action.

Common questions

  1. Does copyright law protect an idea?

    No. Copyright applies to the recorded work (i.e. a book, a piece of music, a film), not the idea behind it.

  2. Does copyright protect names or titles?

    No. Names, titles, short phrases and colours are not generally considered unique or substantial enough to be covered, but a creation, such as a logo, that combines these elements would be protected as an artistic work.

  3. Can I claim copyright for a work that has expired?

    No. Once a work is in the public domain it is available to all. You cannot stop others using the work and you will have no exclusive claim on the work.

  4. Do I need a copyright notice on my work?

    There is no legal requirement to do so. Whether a notice is used or not will not change the fact that copyright exists in the work. It is however strongly recommended that you include one on your work if all all possible to deter infringement.

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Introduction to Copyright Law fact sheet from the UK Copyright Service.

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