What happens when you break copyright laws?

It is said that possession is nine-tenths of the law, but when it comes to copyright, this is not necessarily the case. Copyright law is there to protect the creators of items and makes sure that simply having possession of something is not enough to try and claim ownership.


What is copyright law?

Copyright law was created to protect those who produce original work, whether it is a photograph, a piece of music, a design or an article. This means that it cannot be copied, republished or distributed without the express permission of the creator.

Copyright law does allow for works to be sold, rented, transferred or used, but this is down to the owner to decide and approve. This means that someone may give permission for a business to use something they have created for one task but can prevent it from being used elsewhere or by anyone else. Even if purchasing something from a stock site of music, images or designs, it is still owned by the original creator.

There is a common misconception that editing an original work to suit your own purposes will make it a new creation but this is not the case and you may still have infringed the copyright of the original piece.

Copyright is essentially an automatic intellectual property right, which means that you do not need to make any applications to protect your work. It can apply to literary works, artistic works, publications and performance work such as plays, dance and video footage.

In most cases, the original creator of the work owns the copyright, however, this is not the case if it was created as part of employment or if it has been sold or transferred to someone else. This can happen in the case of commissioned or freelance work, in which the ownership rights are transferred as part of the contract. This might occur when creating a brand identity, for example, as the business will want to use and recreate this in many different ways.


Breaking copyright law

Infringing copyright law is serious business and can lead to legal action. Whilst this is predominantly a civil matter, it can sometimes be deemed a criminal offence leading to fines of up to £50,000 and even a six-month jail term from a magistrate’s court.

The penalties from Crown Court have no limits on the size of the fine that can be awarded and a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. There can also be claims of compensation from the creator if it is deemed that the use of the material has led to a financial loss for them.

In some cases, copyright infringement might be determined to have been fair usage. This provides a few exceptions to copyright law, including material for research and teaching as well as items for criticism, review or quotation. It is also possible to use copyrighted material, with the exception of photographs, when reporting events in the media or when used in parody.

It may be possible to negotiate with the creator when you are notified of a copyright breach, but this will depend on who they are and how their materials have been used. This might involve something as simple as removing the material or paying them an out of court settlement.

It is important to adhere to copyright law as a business, and you will need to ensure that all of your staff are educated in how to avoid this, as it can have a huge cost. Make sure you talk to owners of materials to establish exactly what rights you have over something in order to protect yourself further down the line.


Read Copyright and How to avoid copyright infringement for more information. Ask a lawyer if you have any questions about or require assistance regarding copyright or copyright infringement.


Chander Bagga