Someone’s copied my work, what can I do?


‘Help! Someone’s stolen my work. I don’t have any registered intellectual property (IP) rights for it. Is there anything I can do?’ Well, there might be.

Whether it is a photo, music, film, code or any other new creative work you’ve been working on, you may have copyright in your work, without even realising it. If you do, then you have the right to stop other people from doing things like copying and distributing your work.

And, even if you don’t have copyright, you may have another option: you may still be able to rely on what’s referred to as ‘breach of confidence’.

I’ve got copyright in my work, but when can I use it?

First, someone must have done one of the activities which – as the copyright owner – it is actually your exclusive right to do. So maybe someone’s been making copies of your work without your permission. Or perhaps they have been issuing copies of your work to the public behind your back.

Second, you have to show that the copy is directly derived from your work. If someone independently writes the same software code as you, then they are not infringing your rights. Why? Because their work is not directly derived from yours. But isn’t that difficult to prove? Yes, it can be. One useful approach is to leave a mistake or flaw in your work. If someone has copied the mistake – as well as some of the good bits – then it’s much easier to say that their copy is directly derived from yours. This works particularly well for software code. Another useful approach is to apply invisible watermarks to your work.

Third, you must show that a substantial part of your work has been copied. Usefully this means that the copy doesn’t have to be identical to your work. It means there could be some slight differences between your work and the copy, the form of the work might have changed – from a play to a film, say, or perhaps only half of the original work has been copied.

But what does a substantial part actually look like? This is quite a complicated issue and is – in many ways – dependent on the type of work. We advise contacting a lawyer if you need advice on this.

Are there any times where I can’t use my rights?

Yes. There are a number of times where you can’t use your rights. One example is when someone makes a copy of your work to help their research or private study. Another example is where someone distributes a copy of your work as part of a review or criticism of your work.

If someone has taken even a part of your work, it is best to seek legal advice to see if there is anything you can do about it.

Answer last updated: 17 Jan 2018