Legal Guides

We use plain and simple English to give you an overview of the most common areas of law.

The basics of Copyright Law

Copyright Law protects the creators of ‘original works of authorship’. This includes literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished.

The purpose of Copyright Law is to protect works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form or ‘expression’.

Here are just a few examples of how an idea could be ‘expressed’:

  • Works of art (2D or 3D);
  • Photos, pictures, graphic designs, drawings and other forms of images;
  • Songs, music and sound recordings of all kinds;
  • Books, manuscripts, publications and other written works;
  • Plays, films, broadcasts, shows and other performance arts.

And here’s the important bit – Copyright Law does not protect ideas or simple images UNLESS they are accompanied by its ‘expression’. In other words, it protects the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself.

This means that, unlike a Trade Mark, you do not have to apply for Copyright.

What is Copyright?

Copyright can apply to any medium. For example, publishing photographs on the internet, making a sound recording of a book, a painting of a photograph etc. This means that you must not copy or use a work protected by Copyright in any medium without the Copyright owner’s permission.

A Copyright protected work can have more than one Copyright, or another Intellectual Property Right, connected to it. For example, an album of music can have separate Copyrights for individual songs, sound recordings, artwork etc.

Who owns the Copyright?

If you are the creator of an original Copyright work then the first owner will be you. However, it is not unusual for an original single work to be created and owned by more than one person.

Where two or more people have created a single work protected by Copyright and where the contribution of each author is not distinct from that of the other(s), those people are generally joint authors and joint first owners. For example, in relation to written, artistic, musical, film or theatrical work, the author(s) or creator(s) of the work is also the first owner(s) of any Copyright.

The same rule does not apply for works created by an employee in the course of his or her employment.

Unless there is any agreement or contract, if the work is made by an employee in the course of his or her employment, his or her employer will be the first owner of any Copyright.

Now, ‘In the course of employment’ is a grey area. So when wrangles happen between employee and employer, the courts need to establish whether the employee was working under a ‘contract of service’ or ‘contract for services’.

If you’re working under a ‘contract for services’, you may be seen as an independent contractor, and the works may be considered to be ‘commissioned works’. Therefore, they belong to you and not the company.

How do I register Copyright?

Unlike a Trade Mark, Copyright is an automatic right, which means you don’t have to apply for it, or register it. In essence, it arises automatically.

There is no official registration system for Copyright in the UK and most other parts of the world. Nonetheless, to help protect your Copyright work, it is advisable to mark it with the © symbol, the name of the Copyright owner and the year in which the work was created. It will also help indicate and identify you as the owner at that time in case someone should wish to approach you and ask permission to use your work.

How long does Copyright last?

How long a Copyright work is protected for will depend upon the category or type of work and is usually calculated from the death of the creator. For example, written works (including software and databases), artistic works, musicals, films and theatrical works lasts for the life of the creator, plus 70 years from the end of the year in which the creator died.

If you are an employer you should keep careful records of which employees created the work or works that are owned by your business. The period of Copyright protection, even though it belongs to your company, may still be linked to the date of the death of the creator – that is, the employee.

For other types of Copyright work, such as published editions, broadcasts and sound recordings, the length of protection time is different.

For more information on the length of Copyright protection, visit the UKIPO website.

How much does it cost?

Copyright doesn’t cost a penny. There are no forms to fill in and no fees to pay.

What next?

If you need more information about Copyright, visit the UKIPO website.

It’s always worth doing a bit of research yourself and then getting in contact with an Intellectual Property lawyer or Commercial lawyer. Ask a friend, colleague or family member for someone they can personally recommend.

It may help meeting someone who has real expertise in this complex area, just for an initial chat. They’ll be able to offer advice and specific guidance that’s right for you and your particular situation. And rest assured, Intellectual Property lawyers and Trade Mark attorneys are closely regulated.

DISCLAIMER: This article should not be regarded as constituting legal advice in relation to particular circumstances. This article is merely a general comment on the relevant topic. 

Published on 24th January 2013
(Last updated 7th May 2021)