What is Copyright anyway?

Copyright is a type of intellectual property right that protects things such as books, films, music, photographs. In fact it protects any original literary, artistic, dramatic,or musical works, as well as sound recordings, broadcasts and typographical arrangements.


Why should I Care about Copyright?

As a creative, there are two key reasons why it is important for you to understand copyright. Firstly, so that you can understand your rights in protecting and licensing your own creative outputs – the idea is that you are able to make money from your creations so you can continue to create as a career, not just a hobby!

Secondly, so that you understand the rights of others if you want to use other people’s work in your creative process – essentially how to not infringe!


So, what does Copyright do for me?

In order to have copyright in your work if has to be the following:

  1. Fall within a relevant category (is a literary, artistic, dramatic, musical work)
  2. Be Original – it must be your own intellectual creation, using your own ‘skill, labour and effort’
  3. Be written down or in a fixed form

Copyright arises automatically – so you do not need to register it. However, it is a good idea to keep a paper trail and to affirm your copyright by writing your name, the date and the copyright symbol on your work where possible.

Copyright only protects the expression of ideas and not ideas themselves. What this means is that all ideas are free for anyone to use, of course. Otherwise, for example, we would only have one singing contest show. Instead we have many variations of this idea such as the Xfactor and the Voice.

Once you have created your original work copyright gives you the exclusive right to copy, licence, lend, perform, communicate your work to the public. This means that only you can copy your work and if anyone else wants to use it they must ask for your permission or a licence from you first. (Unless they are using it within one of the exceptions explained below).


And how can I avoid infringing copyright?

It is not an infringement of copyright to take inspiration from other people’s work, as you know that is a normal part of the creative processes. However, it is an infringement of a copyright work if you take the whole of, or a substantial part of someone else’s work without their permission.

The law explains ‘substantial part’ by quality not quantity. This means that there is not a specific number of notes you can take from a song. It is not about how much you take, but what you take.

If you want to use the whole of or part of someone else’s copyright protected work in your creation then you should contact them for permission. They may decide to let you use their work with acknowledgement, or offer you a licence agreement.

There are instances when you can use other people’s work without permission; that is if your use of their work falls within a copyright exception, is in the public domain, or the work is available under a creative commons licence.

An exception to copyright, is a time when you do not need to ask permission from the creator before you can use their work. Different countries have different exceptions. In the UK exceptions include the following:

  1. Research and private study
  2. Criticism, review, quotation and news reporting
  3. Caricature, parody or pastiche
  4. Incidental inclusion of copyright material

A work is in the public domain if the copyright has expired. Generally speaking, this is usually 70 years after the death of the creator.

A Creative Commons (CC) licence is a type of licence that allows you to use a copyright work for free. There are different types of CC licences which allow different types of permissions of what you can do with the work.


What else do I need to know?

A few other important things know about copyright:

  • Copyright law is different in different countries.
  • Copyright is not a monopoly right, it protects the right to copy, so it is not an infringement if two people happen to come up with the same idea.
  • It usually lasts 70 years after the death of the creator!
  • Copyright can be licensed or assigned.
    • A licence is a type of agreement which allows the specific use of a work for a specific purpose and amount of time, in exchange for a fee and/or royalty payments.
    • An assignment is more like a sale, usually for a one off payment in exchange for all the rights in the work
  • Moral rights are linked to copyright works, this is a separate right that allows you two main things
    • Integrity of your work – which means no-one can alter your work without your permission
    • Paternity – to be identified as the creator
  • The law that governs copyright is called the copyright, designs and patents act 1988 which you can read here


Image credit: Claudine O’Sullivan, Yawning Fox, 2013: www.claudineosullivan.com