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The law of copyright is complex; this Quick Guide explains some of the issues you need to understand to protect your business' original creative works.

Copyright is a protection for authors and creators of tangible creative works including:

  • literary works (like novels, song lyrics, plays, newspapers and computer programs)

  • artistic works (like drawings, paintings, sculptures and photographs)

  • musical compositions, sound recordings, films and broadcasts

  • databases

  • maps, architectural designs and technical drawings

Copyright arises automatically. There is no need to register it and there is no process for official registration.

As soon as an idea is written down or recorded in some other tangible form, copyright protection applies automatically without any need to register it.

Usually the owner is the author or creator of the work, or the person who made the arrangements for, say, a sound recording or a film to be made. 

There are two important exceptions to this.

Works made by employees

Any works made by employees will be owned by the employer, unless something else is agreed in the employment contract.

Commissioned work

When you ask someone to create a copyright work for you (eg you ask a photographer to take your wedding photos), then the copyright owner is the creator of the work, not the commissioner, unless the creator and commissioner agree otherwise in writing.

Copyright stops others from copying or adapting your works, or making them available to others, without your permission.

If an identical work is created independently by someone else it can be used provided it was not copied from yours. There are limited exceptions when others can copy your work (eg for research purposes or a review).

Copyright lasts 70 years after the death of the author of artistic, musical, dramatic and literary works.

In the case of sound recordings and broadcasts, the copyright lasts for 50 years from the date it was made.

In the case of films, the copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the last to die out of the film’s director, screenwriter, dialogue author and composer.

Copyright is applied to all original works automatically, so you don't even need to mark it on your work.

Whilst there is no official registration, you should take steps to protect your copyright by providing evidence that you had the work at a particular time, for example by depositing a copy with a bank or a solicitor.

A number of private companies operate unofficial registers, but check exactly what you are getting for your money before going down this route.

When you publish copyright material (either in paper form or on-line) mark it with the international copyright symbol © followed by the name of the copyright owner and the year of creation.  This is the language you will always see on the front pages of a copyright book.

When you share your valuable confidential information, including copyright, with another business, you can consider using an appropriate confidentiality agreement (also known as a non-disclosure agreement or NDA). You can use Rocket Lawyer’s simple interview process to create either a mutual Non-disclosure agreement or One-way confidentiality agreement, depending on whether one or both parties are sharing confidential information.

Make sure your agreements with independent consultants have the necessary provisions relating to IP created in the course of working for you.

If a party breaches your copyright, consider issuing a Cease and desist letter to protect your intellectual property.

There are certain exceptions to copyright that allow limited use of copyright works without the copyright owner’s permission.

Non-commercial research and private study

You can copy limited extracts of works when the use is non-commercial research or private study. Such use is only permitted when it is fair dealing, i.e. you can only copy as much of a work as is necessary for the purpose. Copying the whole work would not generally be considered fair dealing.

Under this exception, you must ensure that the work you reproduce is supported by a sufficient acknowledgment of the source.

Criticism, review and reporting current events

A copyrighted work can be used for the purpose of criticism, review, quotation and news reporting provided the work has already been made available to the public and accompanied by sufficient acknowledgement.

Fair dealing with a work for the purpose of reporting current events is allowed for any type of copyright work other than a photograph.


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