Copyright protects the expression of an original idea in some recorded form (for example, on paper, or in computer code). Lawyers refer to these as copyright 'works'. If it applies, copyright prohibits anyone copying, performing or broadcasting a copyright work without the consent of the copyright owner.
In October 2014 small changes in the law governing copyright were introduced to allow individuals to make private copies for their own use of some digital media under very specific circumstances. However, the majority of uses of copyright works continue to require permission from the copyright owner, so be very careful if you are considering relying on an exception to the usual rules when using copyright material. If in doubt, seek legal advice.
If you make a substantial investment (which can be human, financial or technical) in creating a database of information, this is covered by a similar database right. You have a legal right to stop anyone from using any substantial part of the database without your permission.
Getting copyright protection
In the UK, copyright applies automatically - it does not have to be registered. Copyright protection also applies automatically in most countries in the world. You can use the © copyright symbol on copyright works (together with your name and the year of creation) to show that you consider yourself to have legal rights in the work, but this is not required.
The length of time that copyright protection applies will depend on the type of work. Copyright protection for written, artistic, musical and theatrical works, films and sound recordings lasts for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years after the end of the year in which the creator died. Copyright protection for other types of work will depend on what has been created.
In business, copyright typically covers marketing leaflets, photographs, web pages and so on. As well as words, copyright applies to images, sound recordings and software programs for example.
There are monitoring services that will monitor the internet and other forms of media and alert you if their investigations show that the same or a similar copyright work is being used by anyone else.
Getting database protection
Database right is also automatic and does not have to be registered. Database right provides protection for 15 years.
For these purposes, a database is a collection of material arranged so each item is individually accessible, whether on paper or in electronic form, so it includes: for example, customer lists, directories, encyclopaedias and card index systems.
The contents of your database may also be protected by copyright.
Key business issues
Unless your business profits from original works (for example, as an artist, publisher or computer software company), protecting yourself against copyright infringement may not be a major concern. Infringements of copyright (for example, copying part of a marketing leaflet) are unlikely to be detected or to cause your business substantial harm.
Where the intellectual property is important to you, you may want to take an active approach to detecting and deterring infringement.
You should also take steps to ensure that your employees do not infringe on other people's copyright. For example, by copying images or text without permission.
If you commission a third party to create a copyright work for you, such as a photograph or the code for your website, make sure that they agree, in writing, to assign the copyright (and any other intellectual property rights involved) to you. If you don’t those rights will belong to them as the creator of the work, even though you paid them to create the work for you.
And remember - If you're thinking about protecting your business's name or logo, trade marks can be much more effective than copyright in these circumstances. And inventions are best protected by registering a patent.