Copyrighting your work

1. Introduction

Copyright is an automatic right that protects the way an original idea is expressed in a piece of work and is relevant to any business that produces original literature (like novels, manuals, computer programs, lyrics, articles and databases), drama, music, publications, films, videos or broadcasts. There are no forms to fill in and no fees to pay, but copyright gives the creator or first owner of any original work the legal right to control how this material may be used.

This factsheet explains the principle of copyright and how you can use copyright to protect your original material. It also gives you guidelines on what to do if you think your copyright is being infringed, and suggests other sources that will give you help and further information on the subject.

2. What is the purpose of copyright?

Copyright helps creators to gain economic rewards for their efforts and encourages future creativity. Without protection it could be very easy for others to exploit material without paying the creator.

Copyright gives rights to creators of certain kinds of material to control the ways in which their material may be used. The rights broadly cover copying, adapting, issuing, renting and lending copies to the public, performing in public and broadcasting. In many cases, the creator will also have the right to be identified on their work.

The copyright owner must decide how to exploit their work and how to enforce their copyright. They can also benefit by selling or agreeing a transfer of copyright to someone else.

3. Who owns copyright?

In the case of a written, dramatic, musical or artistic work, the general rule is that the person who created the work is the first owner of the economic rights under copyright. This rule also applies to commissioned works. However, where a work is created during employment, the employer is the first owner of these rights, unless an agreement has been made between the employee and employer indicating otherwise. For work carried out by a contractor the situation is less clear. Normally the contractor retains the copyright, unless you have said otherwise in a contract. This is worth doing for such contracted work.

Copyright, like physical property, can be bought or sold, inherited or transferred to another person in another way, eg as a gift. So some, or all, of the economic rights may later belong to someone other than the first owner.

4. What laws enforce copyright?

UK legislation is based on the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which defined copyright as a property right which can be given away, licensed or sold. The following are the main pieces of legislation that add to the scope and detail of the 1988 Act:

(i) The Copyright (Computer Programs) Regulations 1992 extend the definition of literary work to include design material for programs, allow some back-up copying of licensed software, and provide for limited 'decompiling' of licensed programs to make them work with other programs.

ii) The Duration of Copyright and Rights in Performances Regulations 1995 harmonise copyright and related rights across member states of the EU.

(iii) The Copyright and Related Rights Regulations 1996 implement EU Directives on rental, lending and other rights in the copyright field and on copyright and related rights in relation to cable and satellite broadcasting.

(iv) The Copyright and Rights in Database Regulations 1997 determine the circumstances for copyright protection to apply to databases.

(v) The Broadcasting Acts 1990 and 1996 made certain changes to the 1988 Act, particularly in introducing a statutory licence for broadcasting of sound recordings where copyright owners license this use collectively.

(vi) EU legislation is constantly being developed and reviewed to deal with the impact of new technologies, such as online services, databases, etc, on copyright. An EC Directive on Copyright and Related Rights in the Information Society came into force on 9 April 2001. The Directive harmonises the rights for the use of copyright material in e-commerce, that is the rights of copying and electronic transmission. The directive will be transposed into UK law during 2003.

5. What kind of work does copyright protect?

The type of works that copyright protects include:

(i) Original literary works, for example books, training materials, software / computer programs, song lyrics, newspaper articles and some types of databases.

(ii) Original dramatic works, including dance or mime.

(iii) Original music.

(iv) Original artistic works, for example paintings, engravings, photographs, sculptures, architectural designs, technical drawings, diagrams, maps and logos.

(v) Published editions of works, that is the style and layout of a publication.

(vi) Sound recordings on any medium, for example tape or CD. This can also include recordings of other copyright works.

(vii) Films and videos.

(viii) Broadcasts and cable programmes.

6. How does copyright apply to the Internet?

Under UK law copyright material available over the Internet will generally be protected in the same way as material in other media. Generally, when you put your work on a website, it is probably a good idea to mark each page with the international © mark followed by the name of the copyright owner and year of publication. In addition, you could include information on your website about whether you will allow others to use your copyright material without permission.

Although material on a website is protected by copyright, you should remember that websites are accessible from all over the world and, if material on your website is used without your permission, you would probably need to take action for copyright infringement in the location where the infringement occurs.

7. What must you do to ensure copyright protection?

There is no official register for copyright. It is an unregistered right (unlike patents, registered designs or trade marks). You don't actually need to take any action for your copyright to be protected. There are no application forms to fill in or fees to pay. Copyright comes into effect immediately, as soon as something is created and recorded in some way, for example on paper, on film, sound recording, or on the Internet.

It is a good idea for you to mark your copyright work with the copyright symbol © followed by your name and the date, to warn others against copying it. While this is not legally required in the UK and most other countries, marking in this way may help you during infringement proceedings.

Steps can also be taken to provide evidence that you created the work at a particular time. For example, a copy of your work could be deposited with a bank or solicitor. Alternatively, you could send yourself a copy by special delivery (which gives a clear date stamp on the envelope), leaving the envelope unopened when you receive it.

A number of private companies operate unofficial registers, but you should check carefully what you will be paying for before choosing to use them. It is important to note that using one of these options does not prove that a work is original or created by you. However, it might be useful to be able to show that the work was in your possession at a particular date, for example where someone else claims that you have copied something of theirs that was actually created after your work.

8. When is copyright contravened?

Where your work has been used without your permission and none of the exceptions to copyright apply, your copyright is said to be infringed. It is up to you to decide to what extent you will allow your work to be copied and you can license your work to others to enable them to use it with your permission.

One of the exceptions to copyright protection is the concept of fair dealing; this allows some unlicensed copying and other use without infringing copyright. Some copyright works may be used (photocopied, for example) to a limited extent, for research and private study, even if for commercial ends (except where work is a database). Making single copies of short extracts of a work or a single article from a journal may count as fair dealing. Copying by someone other than a researcher or student is not allowed if copies will be given to more than one person, at the same time for the same purpose, for example for a training session.

The economic impact of the use on the copyright owner is an important factor, which the courts consider when deciding whether use is fair dealing.

9. How do you license your copyright?

As a copyright owner, it is for you to decide whether and how to license use of your work. An exclusive licence could be granted, which enables the licensee to use the copyright work to the exclusion of all others, including you, the copyright owner. A licence can be limited, for example in duration, or in any other way. It is a contractual agreement between the copyright owner and user.

Often copyright owners find it difficult to license use of their works by themselves and so they have formed organisations, called collecting societies or collective licensing bodies, for example the Performing Right Society. These organisations can license certain uses of your work on your behalf. Collective licensing means that a user may be offered a licence covering use of all the works covered by the collecting society.

10. What can you do if someone copies your work?

Copyright is essentially a private right, so it is up to you how you decide to enforce your rights. Although you are not obliged to do so, it is usually sensible, and may save you time and money, to try to resolve the matter with the party you think has infringed your copyright without resorting to official proceedings. If you are unable do this you might have to go to court. Courts may grant a range of remedies, such as injunctions (to stop the other person making use of the material), damages for infringement, or orders to produce infringing goods. In some cases it may be necessary to demonstrate to the court that you have tried to solve the matter by mediation or arbitration if you wish the court to consider awarding you the best available remedy including an award covering your costs. If you decide to go ahead with legal action you must get some professional advice as this is a particularly complicated area of law. One of the many organisations representing copyright owners may also be able to give you advice, or sometimes act on your behalf if you are a member.

Deliberate infringement of copyright can be considered a criminal offence. If it is on a large scale, for example pirate or counterfeit copies of CDs, then you should inform either the police or your local trading standards department. They can decide whether action, including potential prosecution, is justified. If the police or trading standards decide not to take any action, you could still consider a private criminal prosecution if you believe there is a criminal offence and you can still pursue a civil action against the alleged infringer.

11. Is copyright protection sufficient for your product?

Copyright does not protect ideas. Although the work itself may be protected, the idea behind it is not. To protect an original idea, you will need to obtain a patent. This is a fairly complicated procedure. For further information see Patenting your invention.

Copyright may protect the drawing from which an article is made, but it can not prevent the manufacture of purely industrial articles. However, articles that are replicated by an industrial process, but which are of an aesthetically pleasing appearance may be protected by copyright where the article itself is an artistic work. This includes sculptures as well as works of artistic craftsmanship. Where it is possible to obtain a registered design for such articles, the copyright term will be reduced to match the term of protection for registered designs. (For information on protection of industrial articles, see BIF 249).

Names, titles, slogans or phrases are not protected by copyright, however these could possibly be registered as a trade mark. (See BIF 219)

The Patent Office can provide a wide range of information on patents, registered designs and trade marks as well as copyright.

12. Will your material be protected overseas?

Copyright material is usually also protected in other countries, but this is not always the case. The UK is a member of several international conventions in this field, including the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC). Copyright material created by UK nationals or residents is protected in each member country of the conventions by the national law of that country. Most countries belong to at least one of the conventions, including all the Western European countries, the USA and Russia. A full list of the conventions and their member countries may be obtained from the Copyright Directorate at the Patent Office.

In order to benefit from the automatic protection in other countries arising from the UCC you must mark your work with the international © symbol, followed by the name of the copyright owner and year of publication.

Protection overseas can also arise from obligations in the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which forms part of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement. Once again this is automatic so you may also find your work is protected in WTO countries.

13. Hints and tips

(i) It is essential to keep records showing the date and author of any work produced in which copyright exists. One simple method is to seal a copy in an envelope and post it to yourself by registered mail. When it arrives it should be kept safe (without opening it); if necessary, a judge can unseal it.

(ii) It is important to check with trade associations or professional bodies to see if fair limits have been negotiated for typical copying needs within the type of business.

(iii) Marking with a copyright symbol © followed by the copyright owner's name and year of publication is not required by UK law, but can deter infringement. It may be needed for protection overseas and is essential in the USA.

Further information


'Basic Facts - Copyright'

Patent Office Central Enquiry Unit
Tel: 0845 950 0505

'The Law of Copyright and Rights in Performances'

British Copyright Council
Tel: (01986) 788122

Useful Contacts

Patent Office

The Patent Office is an executive agency of the Department of Trade and Industry, providing information and advice on all intellectual property issues.

Copyright Directorate
Harmsworth House
13-15 Bouverie Street
Tel: 0845 950 0505

British Copyright Council

The British Copyright Council is an umbrella organisation bringing together organisations which represent those who create, or hold rights in, literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works and those who perform such works. The BCC functions principally as a liaison committee for its member associations, providing them with a forum for the discussion of matters of copyright interest.

29-33 Berners Street
Tel: (01986) 788122


Copyright Licensing Agency Ltd

The Copyright Licensing Agency is a non-profit making agency that licenses organisations for photocopying and scanning.

90 Tottenham Court Road
Tel: (020) 7631 5555

Federation Against Software Theft (FAST)

FAST aims to promote the legal use of software. It offers training and advice on software management and copyright protection.

Clivemont House
54 Clivemont Road
Tel: (01628) 622 121