Copyright is a legal tool that helps authors and creators protect their rights regarding the use or commercial exploitation of the specific works that have been identified as their creation. Copyright lawyers help you fight breaches of copyright and intellectual property rights. We explain copyright law and how to find a good copyright and intellectual property lawyer in the UK.
What rights do you have from copyright law?
Copyright law gives the author or creator of works the rights to:
Make copies of the works
Issue copies of the works
Rent out the works
Lend the works to individuals or organisations without losing copyrights or ownership
Personally perform or allow the performance of the works by others
Display the works or allow the displaying of the works by others
Communicate the work to the public in any form without making giving ownership to the public
Adapt the work and maintain copyrights to all versions
Stop others from doing any of the above without the formal consent from the copyright owner in a recognised legal format
Copyright can be a swamp of complexity and is not something to be tackled by an inexperienced lawyer or a private citizen. There are vast differences in territorial rights from country to country, and these are recognised globally through a series of established complex international treaties. Even within continent boundaries, such as in Europe, there is very limited cross-border compatibility with the legislation. It is, therefore, in your best interest to always seek professional, experienced, specialised legal advice when going down the copyright protection path.
What is the wider definition of copyright law?
Copyright law is also referred to as intellectual property rights law. These laws stop non-authors or non-creators from copying or profiting from the works of creators such as artists, writers, designers, software engineers, website developers and composers – the right holders.
The law gives the right holders diverse rights, including the right to royalties and the power to restrict the reproduction of the work by others.
To be specific, copyright law gives the right holder the ability to stop the reproduction of a ‘substantial’ part of the protected work.
How does the law define ‘substantial’? The testing of the term has to be satisfied on a ‘qualitative’ basis.
What does ‘reproduction’ mean? Under this term, the law includes the reproduction of the protected in any material form such as:
Showing, performing or presenting the work in:
Distributing images, videos or replicas of the work on the internet
Making a copy of the work, whether it is in 2D or 3D form
For a work to qualify for the protection of copyright law, the work has to be deemed the first of its kind, i.e. an ‘original’. It should clearly exhibit the author or creator’s “own intellectual creation”.
Is intellectual property law different?
Intellectual property (or “IP”) law is a legal tool that addresses issues relating to non-tangible (non-physical) property rights. This definition includes works such as:
Other art forms
Research data of a scientific nature
Original inventions and the blueprints thereof (physical or non-physical inventions)
Trade secrets, e.g. a recipe
Who owns the copyright title?
Usually, the owner of the copyright is the direct author or creator of a work. When two people or a team of people have created a work or invention, there is usually joint ownership of the copyright and may be subject to a pre-invention contract. If individual contributions can be identified, then copyright ownership might be allocated according to the contribution percentages.
Of course, we all know there are teams of creatives designing moon rovers, new sauces and new software. The copyright protection of such works, commissioned by an employer to an employee, is usually assigned to the employer as the first rights holder. This is not a pre-defined understanding by law. It is governed by:
The terms of the employment contract
The assessment of whether the work:
is within the parameters of the commissioned work as defined in work briefs and supporting documentation,
is or was commenced and completed during the course of a binding employment contract.
Deviations from the above two points will need additional contracts or, post creation, assessment by a copyright lawyer. The earlier the better, because a launched work, product or service that has earned millions will be a harder issue to resolve.
What works can be protected by copyright law?
The range of works that can be protected is diverse and large, but here are some category examples, in front of which the word ‘original’ applies:
Music (vocal and non-vocal)
Artistic works generally, irrespective of artistic quality:
sculpture or collage,
architecture (building, drawing or a model), or
Computer programs and software code, including those created by A.I.
The data within databases
Audio recordings, films (digital, celluloid or other)
Typographical arrangements of published editions
How long does copyright protection last?
There is no single answer to this question as the copyright protection period of duration is subject to the type of work being protected.
As an example:
Works of literature, music or artistic creations are copyright protected for the lifetime of the rights holder plus an additional seventy years posthumously.
If the work was computer-generated, then the seventy years drops down to fifty years.
Audio-visual works, such as broadcasts, have a copyright protection period of fifty years (from broadcast date).
Sound recordings also enjoy a fifty-year protection period that runs from the end of the year of publication.
Film recordings have a longer protection period, viz seventy years, following the death of the last of these rights holders:
The principal director
The screenplay author
The dialogue/script author
The composer of the original film soundtrack
Typographical creations only have twenty-five years of copyright protection. This runs from the end of its first publication year.
Are copyrights supposed to be registered?
As mentioned earlier, there are different rules in different countries, but copyright comes into effect automatically here in the UK. As soon as an ‘original’ work is created, there is no need for registration.
Note: Ideas are NOT protected by copyright. The expression of a creator’s ideas, fixed in a material form or recorded as a work that realises the ideas, is protected.
Therefore, it would be prudent to keep meticulous records and evidence of any works created or ideas recorded based on copyright being automatic. This will be invaluable when an audit trail is called upon to prove the rights holder’s ownership.
How can you show a work is protected by copyright?
It is always best to mark original works, when published, broadcast, distributed, etc, with:
An infringement of copyright occurs when any non-rights holding person carries out any actions that are exclusive rights of a right holder without obtaining permission in a legally recognised form from the copyright owner.
A person or business can be charged with secondary copyright infringement if, for example, they import, have possession of, sell or distribute any work which they know or suspect is copyright protected.
Are there exceptions to copyright infringement definitions?
Short answer – yes. The main exceptions include:
Making copies that are only for temporary use
Fair use while executing a criticism, review, quotation or news report
Fair use for the execution of a caricature, parody or pastiche
Use for research and private study
Incidental use (e.g. a painting is hanging on a wall behind someone being interviewed)
Public interest or copying works (and enlarging or altering) for the visually impaired
Whilst there is this narrow margin for exceptions, this does not create the flexibility for an “innocent infringer” defence. There is also zero defence for personal copies for private use.
Infringement does not only apply to a whole work. There can be a part infringement if a ‘substantial’ part has been copied. As mentioned earlier, the definition of what is deemed ‘substantial’ is reached via a qualitative test, not a quantitative test.
Note: Due to a qualitative testing method, an infringement can occur even if a non-substantial piece (size-wise) is copied but deemed an important portion.
How is computer coding and software protected?
Computer coding and software is viewed as similar to literary works. This immediately gives them a basic level of protection afforded literary works. Contentious debates are growing around the development of exponentially advanced technology and AI.
Are copyrights saleable?
Copyrights are property rights and properties can be bought, sold, inherited or transferred, either wholly or partially. Therefore, a creator or author may not always be the rights holder.
For distribution reasons, for example, others can be licensed to use protected works without obtaining ownership of them. These licences will cover aspects such as:
The usage rights expiration date
Scope of usage
How to find a good copyright or intellectual property lawyer in the UK?
Firstly, well done for considering professional help! Muddling your way solo through setting up copyright ownership or dealing with an infringement is not recommended. Having said that, finding a professional, regardless of the trade, that suits your needs and personal values is not simple and takes a little bit of time and effort.
This also applies to the search for a copyright or intellectual property (IP) lawyer. Here are some points for you to consider when you start your search for an lawyer in this specialised field of work:
If this is not about setting up clear ownership but about a claim, then take the time to understand what type of claim you have. This is because some copyright and IP lawyer only deal in one specific area of copyright or IP, e.g. patents.
Write up an explanation of your situation so that you have the opportunity to structure your thoughts on paper. It also helps you remember any details that might be omitted during a verbal rambling in a meeting. The more the lawyer knows, the better their chances of success (and the least time wasted).
There are online matching services – an efficient way to find the perfect fit for your needs. You can go old school and use a phone book, but that will not be efficient nor will it deliver the additional information available on websites.
Ask your peer network for recommendations, read up in the online newspapers, digital platforms, etc., to see if there are any thought leaders out there or firms that have had successful cases or influenced changes in the legislation.
Lawyers can be consulted to set up clear copyright ownership if there is a group of people involved, or merely if you want to be conservative in your approach to rights-holding. Whilst you don’t have to register a copyright to be the rights holder, you can register it. This process can be complex, so hiring a lawyer is a prudent step to take.
Do as much research as possible relating to a firm’s previous performance and their standing with state bar associations.
Copyright lawyers and finding a good one in the UK
To conclude your search journey, we recommend that you take the time to clearly identify several different firms or individual lawyers. This shortlist of firms or individuals must have experience in the area that your work falls into, e.g. literature.
The next step is to call them and interview them, not at your cost, to verify this experience.
Extensive IP experience is vital as the lawyer will know the exact process, previous precedents set, and potential legislative changes in the pipeline.
Copyright and intellectual property are arguably the trickiest legal arena for finding a good lawyer due to diversity and layered complexity. This results in it being possibly the most misunderstood legal category.
Hiring a copyright lawyer or intellectual property lawyer is undoubtedly the first and most important step for you to take in the face of any infringement matters. As with all things in life, laying solid foundations gives you greater success in the long run. Therefore, it is vital that you hire a good, experienced lawyer from the start. Suppose you are setting up the clarification of copyright ownership or registering a patent, trademark, or copyright. In that case, a knowledgeable lawyer can perform all those tasks and ensure your legal needs are safe and secure.