How copyright works and how it can help your business

Suitcase lying in a field containing multiple vinyl records

Copyright protects artistic expressions of an original idea in some recorded form. It prohibits people from copying, performing or broadcasting your work without your consent

In order to be protected, your idea must be 'expressed' in a way the law recognises. For example, on paper, in a photograph or in computer code. Simply having the idea is not sufficient.

Your copyright works could be paintings, books, lyrics or musical scores, photographs, sound or film recordings, screenplays, films or broadcasts. It could also be a website made up of code, words, graphics, images, or sound recordings.

Many businesses use original, creative works in their day-to-day activities. For example, they may design, write or create images or videos for their website, catalogues, marketing literature or packaging. Copyright works could also include manuals, drawings, sketches, blueprints, photographs, brands or logos.

Importantly, your customer or other databases are protected by copyright too.

A work can be protected by more than one copyright - a common example is a music album, where each individual song, the artwork and video may all be protected by copyright. (There may also be other intellectual property rights in a work - for example, there may be design rights, database rights or a trade mark involved too.)

The rights copyright gives you

Copyright gives you automatic control over the rights to copy, perform, broadcast or adapt your copyright work - though limited use is allowed without your permission for private study, teaching in schools and reviews.

Who owns the copyright

Copyright usually belongs to whoever creates the work (the 'author'), or to the employer if it is created by an employee as part of their job. Copyright in a work may be jointly owned if more than one person collaborated to create it.

Businesses often do not realise that copyright in a work still belongs to the author even if the business has commissioned and paid the author to create it. For example, a business that commissions an agency to create a website will find that the agency still owns the copyright (and any other intellectual property) unless the agency transfers ('assigns') the copyright and other IP to the business.

Exploiting copyright

You can license others to use or copy your copyright works - for example, to include an image you created on their website - for a fixed fee and/or royalties. You should make sure that any licence agreement is in writing, and professionally drafted. You can also sell your copyright, or leave it to someone in your will.

Enforcing copyright

In the UK, copyright applies automatically - it does not have to be registered. Copyright protection also applies automatically in most countries in the world.

If your copyright is being infringed outside the UK, you can usually enforce your rights through international treaties. For example, the UK has signed up to the Berne Convention, which says signatory states must provide minimum standards of copyright protection to nationals of all other member states.

Copyright for literary, dramatic, musical and artistic material and for computer software lasts for the lifetime of the creator plus an additional 70 years from the end of the year in which the creator died. Copyright for other material lasts for 25, 50 or 70 years.

It is up to you to enforce copyright yourself. Although copyright is automatic, you may want to add the copyright symbol © or the words 'copyright - all rights reserved', together with your name and the year of creation, to the copyright material to help emphasise that copyright exists. You should also keep copies of the original work and dated records of when it was disclosed to other people.

Enforcing your rights if someone adapts your work can be difficult. 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.

Using other people's copyright protected work

You should take steps to ensure that you or your employees do not infringe on other people's copyright - for example, by copying images or text without permission. Consider buying or licensing the copyright in works you want to use - for example you can subscribe to websites that provide licensed images for you to use on your own website, but make sure you are able to comply with any conditions in the licensing agreement.

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