The Lowdown on Copyright

The history of copyright in the UK dates back to the 16th century when an author had to register a book he had finished writing with The Stationers Company which gave him sole permission to reproduce the book thereafter. This form of protection was available for the next 200 years.

Acts of Parliament were later passed that extended copyright protection to engravings and then eventually to musical, artistic and dramatic works.

Current legislation is governed by the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act, which extends copyright protection to encompass creations from typefaces and software, to art, film, photography and recorded music. 

Copyright automatically protects the owner’s work and prevents anyone from using it without their permission. 

Imagine you’ve sat down and penned the lyrics to a pop song; or an architect has drawn up the blueprint to a client’s dream house: both these examples would lead to their owner having copyright over the work produced.

However, a writer who has only thought of a gripping plot line for their next novel could not claim copyright in that plot line.  This is because for copyright to exist a work must be recorded in a concrete and reproducible form, i.e. it must be ‘fixed’ in some form, e.g. written down or digitally recorded.

This does not mean that you should post works to yourself using the postal system – that is an entirely anachronistic way of attempting to keep a date-stamped record of works that are being created. Instead electronic date-stamping occurs naturally in most computer files and on cloud-based email services.

Unlike trademarks, patents and designs, where formal registers exist and official fees must be paid the UK does not have a formal copyright register. This means that copyright doesn’t come with a registration certificate; it is merely an unregistered right that comes from the creation of a work.

You may have noticed a sign inside a pub or restaurant saying that the venue has a public performance license from PRS to play recorded music. What’s this all about? Well, all live and recorded music is protected by copyright during a musician’s lifetime and 70 years after their death, which means that permission is needed before an artist’s music can be performed in public.  Without this license a landlord would be infringing copyright and could be sued for copyright infringement.   

The copyright symbol © is one we are all familiar with but are we always sure of its meaning? We are used to seeing the copyright symbol in books and magazines, next to a person’s name and a date, but use of the copyright symbol is entirely unrestricted. This is in contrast to the ® symbol, which can only be used in respect of registered trademarks (it is a criminal offence to use it in respect of marks that are not registered).

This means that anyone can place the copyright symbol next to anything they wish to regardless of whether or not they do in fact own copyright in a work. Of course reckless and incorrect copyright labelling may breach laws such as the ‘right to object to false attribution’ of a copyright work.

However, whether or not copyright does actually exist may be irrelevant as the mere presence of a © sign may act as a deterrent to anyone copying the works.

Today it is predominantly from the music and entertainment industry that we hear about high profile copyright court cases. From accusations of stealing song lyrics and melodies from one famous artist to another wannabe, to the giants of the film world suing politicians for using their movie soundtracks to boost their PR, we are surrounded by stories of copyright infringement. 

Copyright is precisely what the name suggests – a right to stop people copying original works that qualify for copyright protection.

Copyright can be infringed by the copying of the whole or part of a work; provided that a ‘substantial’ part of the work has been copied (and substantial can either be in quality or quantity) then a claim for copyright infringement may exist.

Often copyright infringement is complex and a somewhat grey area of law that is open to argument.

 If you require assistance with any copyright infringement claim or in defence of allegations of copyright infringement please do not hesitate to contact us.