Copyright law: what do I need to know?

Under English law, copyright is a principle of intellectual property law which gives creators rights around the works they have created, such as rights to copy, issue copies, rent or lend, perform, show, play, communicate or adapt the copyright work. In other words, copyright is used as a way for creators to control what others do with their work.

Copyright protection arises automatically, as soon as the work is created. It is wise to keep a good paper trail which shows evidence of when a work is created and to mark copyright material with the international copyright symbol (©) with an appropriate copyright notice.

Which types of works are eligible for copyright protection?

In order to be eligible for copyright protection, work will need to fall within one of the following categories:

  • Original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works
  • Sound recordings, films or broadcasts
  • Typographical arrangements of published editions

The work needs to be original. This means that it needs to have been created through the author’s own skill, judgment and individual effort and it cannot be copied from other works.

These qualifiers could be interpreted quite widely, and there have been examples under English law where calendars and competition cards have been considered as the product of sufficient skill and labour.

The work also needs to be recorded in some way, such as in writing.

Do I or my work qualify for copyright protection?

If you have created a work, and you are the first one to have done so, generally speaking you could be considered to be the copyright owner. You will need to make sure that you truly are the real author of the original work and there are exceptions, for example under some employment arrangements.

The geographical location of the citizenship / domicile / incorporation of the author and where the work was first published will be important factors in determining whether the work qualifies for copyright protection under English law.

How long does copyright protection last?

When we talk about how long copyright protection lasts, we use the word “duration”. The duration of copyright protection depends on what sort of work the protected work is.

  • A literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work’s copyright protection usually expires 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author dies.
  • A computer-generated work’s copyright protection usually expires 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was made.
  • A work of typographical arrangement expires 25 years from the end of the calendar year in which the edition was first published.

Where copyright can get difficult

The following areas are some examples of situations where legal counsel may need to be taken to determine the nature of the ownership of copyright:

Joint authorship

When you have created a work together with someone else, you will need to consider the contribution of each of you who has contributed and determine whether your contribution is distinct from the contribution of the other person.

Multiple copyright works

Sometimes a few different copyright works can be at play in the same piece of work because the different elements of the work are protected as different types of copyright work. Think of a song on a CD. The music, the lyrics and the sound recording will all be protected separately.

Copyright in employment

Where work is created by an employee during their employment, usually the employer will be the first owner of the copyright in the work. Careful consideration will need to be taken over whether the employee created the work during the course of their employment.

Copyright as part of a partnership

If you are a partner of a business or if you are setting up a partnership, whether the legal title to the work is yours will depend on if you made the work in the ordinary course of partnership business. It may be that your partnership agreement specifies whether the work is regarded as an asset of the partnership or not.

Computer-generated works

Works are not necessarily written down pen to paper by a person anymore, and there are lots of businesses involved in creating computer-generated works, such as computer programs, or even computer-generated industrial or architectural drawings. Generally, the author would be the person who undertook the necessary arrangements for the creation of the computer-generated work, but the question of ownership needs to be addressed in the relevant contract.

Has my copyright been infringed?

If someone does anything with your work without your permission, then they may be infringing your copyright. A few exceptions include:

  • Someone making temporary copies
  • Fair dealing for the purpose of criticism, review, quotation or news reporting
  • Fair dealing for caricature
  • Parody or pastiche
  • Research and private study
  • Incidental use
  • Educational use
  • Public interest
  • Copying works for the visually impaired

How can we help?

If you want to protect your work against copyright infringement or are concerned about an infringement of your copyright, our copyright experts will be happy to help you. Please contact our commercial team

Alex Canham
Partner, Corporate
View profileContact Us

This reflects the law and market position at the date of publication and is written as a general guide. It does not contain definitive legal advice, which should be sought in relation to a specific matter.

Latest Legal Insights

Best Law Firms 2024

Herrington Carmichael has once again been named in the Times Best Law Firms. We were first listed in 2023 and have once again made the Best Law Firms list for 2024.

Best Law Firm 2024