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How copyright works and how it can help your business

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  • Publish date: 01 April 2015
  • Archived on: 07 April 2016

Copyright protects expressions of an original idea in some recorded form. Lawyers refer to these as copyright 'works'. If it applies, copyright prohibits anyone copying, performing or broadcasting a copyright work without the consent of the copyright owner.

Small Business Update

This update was published in Small Business Update - April 2015

Small Business Update from Atom Content Marketing is a monthly magazine for people running their own business. Articles vary in length and cover 'hot topics', issues of importance, and current affairs.

It is vital that the original idea does not just exist in your head, but has been 'expressed' in a way the law recognises. An original idea could be expressed, for example, on paper, in stone, in a photograph or in computer code.

If you are an artist your copyright works could be paintings, sculptures, books, poems, song lyrics or scores, photographs, collages, sound and film recordings, screenplays, films or broadcasts. If you are a creative agency, they could be websites (comprising, for example, source and object code, formats, words, graphics and videos), images, marketing literature, e-newsletters or sound recordings.

Many businesses use original, creative works in their day-to-day activities. For example, they may design, write the words or create images or videos for their website, catalogues, leaflets, newsletters, articles, marketing literature and packaging. Similarly, any parts lists, tables, manuals, labels, drawings, diagrams, sketches, blueprints, maps, photographs, brands or logos may be copyright works.

Importantly, businesses often compile customer or other databases that 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 sound recording, 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 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 and pays a creative agency to create a website will find that the agency owns the copyright (and any other intellectual property) in the website unless they have entered into a written contract agreeing that the agency has transferred ('assigned') the copyright and other IP in the website to the business.

Exploiting copyright

You can license others to use, copy, etc your copyright works – for example, to include an image you created on their website - for a fixed fee and/or royalties, but 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 neither you nor any of your employees 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.

Disclaimer: This article from Atom Content Marketing is for general guidance only, for businesses in the United Kingdom governed by the laws of England. Atom Content Marketing, expert contributors and ICAEW (as distributor) disclaim all liability for any errors or omissions.

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