What is copyright?

Frequently asked questions about intellectual property

Copyright is the right of the owner to make copies of the work and to stop others doing so without their permission. Copyright is an unregistered right (unlike patents, registered designs and trademarks). There is no official registration system, and these rights arise automatically on the creation of the work. The Copyright Acts covers: 

  • copying;
  • adapting;
  • distributing;
  • communicating to the public by electronic transmission (including by broadcasting and in an on-demand service);
  • renting or lending copies to the public; and,
  • performing in public.

In many cases, the author will also have the right to be identified on their work, and to object if their work is distorted or mutilated.

More general information on copyright and copyright protection can be accessed via the following link to the UK Intellectual Property Office website: http://www.ipo.gov.uk/types/c-about.htm .

This includes a free download booklet – Copyright basic facts, which covers most of the usual questions asked on the topic, as well as a glossy guide – Copyright Essential Reading.

It is recommended that you take the time to familiarise yourself with these, as copyright, although a fundamental and automatic right, can have far reaching consequences, particularly in the University environment. The following information summarises the key points set out in these publications including specific information and guidance on how this affects you and your work within the University. If you have any further queries then please contact one of the Specialist IP Advisors within the University (see How can I learn more?) who should be able to assist you.

What is protected by copyright?

Copyright protects original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, published editions of works, sound recordings (including CDs), films (including videos and DVDs) and broadcasts.

What about computer programs and material stored in computers?

A computer program is protected as a literary work. Converting a program into or between computer languages and codes counts as ‘adapting’ a work. And storing any work in a computer involves ‘copying’ the work. Also, running a computer program or displaying a work on a VDU will usually involve ‘copying’. The copyright owner will usually need to give permission for ‘adapting’ and ‘copying’ a work. But you may not need permission to make transient or incidental temporary copies.

What about databases?

Databases are protected by copyright if the selection and/or arrangement of their contents is original. But they may also, or instead, be protected by ‘database right’ if there has been a substantial investment to make the database. Database right protects databases against anyone extracting and using their contents without permission. Database right lasts for 15 years from when the database is made or, if the database is published during this time, for 15 years from publication (see http://www.ipo.gov.uk/types/copy/c-otherprotect/c-databaseright.htm for more information).

Does material have to have novelty or aesthetic value to get copyright protection?

No - the material simply has to be the result of independent intellectual effort. Technical descriptions, catalogues and engineering drawings are all examples of material which qualifies for copyright protection whatever the subject matter.

Are ideas protected by copyright?

No - although the work itself may be protected by copyright, the idea behind it is not. A good example of this ‘idea over output dichotomy’ is – “Banksy does not have copyright on the concept of graffiti art, just the works he creates”.

Ownership of copyright

The general rule is that the author is the first owner of copyright in a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work. In the case of films, the principal director and film producer are joint authors and first owners of copyright. The copyright in sound recordings, broadcasts and typographic arrangement of published editions usually belongs to the record producer, broadcaster or publisher.

The main exception is where you create a work or film as part of your job. In this case your employer owns the copyright.

The University’s approach to copyright is detailed in the Intellectual Property Policy (see IP Policy) but it will claim any Intellectual Property Rights created by you in the course of your employment with the University (whether or not during working hours or using the University premises or resources) and in particular the copyright in all course materials produced by you and outcomes from research specifically funded or otherwise supported by the University.

However, the University will not claim the copyright in certain works including that which is:

  • written, compiled, edited or otherwise brought into existence by you as a “scholarly work” produced in furtherance of your professional career. “Scholarly work” includes items such as books, contributions to books, articles and conference papers, and shall be construed in the light of the common understanding of the phrase in higher education ; and
  • produced by you for your personal use and reference, including as an aid to teaching, not being part of a course or hand-out to course participants.

The University has a policy of permitting the authors to be identified on works owned by the University. Accordingly, you may identify yourself appropriately. In the case of joint works you undertake that you will not be identified unless you have first obtained the written consent of your co-authors to be either named or omitted from the list of authors.

If I own something, doesn’t that make me the copyright owner?

No - copyright exists independently of the material on which it is recorded. So if, for example, you have bought a painting, you will only own the copyright in it if that has also been transferred to you.

Enforcing copyright

Copyright arises automatically in the UK , but in some jurisdictions, such as the US, there are forms of copyright that are registered. Copyright is a private right, so each copyright owner must make their own decisions about use of a copyright work and how to enforce their copyright.

Do I have to mark my work to claim copyright?

In some countries you must mark your work with the international © mark followed by your name and the year of creation. This is not necessary in the UK, but it may help you if you need to take action against someone using the work without your permission. Marking your work in this way also means that you will get automatic copyright protection in certain foreign countries. (You will get automatic copyright protection in many other countries even if you do not mark your work, but marking may still help).

You can also consider the use of ‘identifiers’ in your work. For example, adding a watermark or minor spelling mistake, or a piece of redundant code in the case of a computer program. If these identifiers are copied then this will assist you in providing evidence of copying.

How can I prove that my work is original?

Ultimately this is a matter for the courts to decide. But it may help if you:

  • deposit copies of your work with a bank or solicitor; or
  • send copies to yourself by special delivery (which gives a clear date stamp on the envelope), leaving the envelope unopened when it is returned to you.

Either of these methods could help to prove that your work existed at a certain time.