What’s copyright?


Probably the best known unregistered intellectual property (IP) right, copyright generally exists in original creative ‘works’ such as books, music and photographs.

However, it is worth remembering that copyright also exists in commercial documents. From website content to sales brochures to software code, copyright can provide commercially relevant protection for any business.

The great thing about copyright is that it exists as soon as you record the original work – in writing, or otherwise. That means that for commercial documents copyright often exists as soon as you create them. Nothing needs to be registered to get copyright protection in Europe. As soon as you take a photo with a camera, copyright exists in the photograph you have taken. As soon as you code some software, copyright exists in the code you’ve created.

It needs to be original

So what do we mean by an ‘original’ work? The whole point here is that copyright protection only exists in things that are considered to be a product of the creator’s own skill and labour, or own intellect. That means that for copyright to exist, the work must be your own independent creation. It must originate from you.

So for the work to be original, it doesn’t need to be new. It just needs to be your own independent creation. It doesn’t even need to be of any certain quality. The copyright that exists in a selfie is the same, and as valuable as, the copyright that exists in a professionally shot photo. Both are the independent creations of and originate from the photographer.

Protection provided

Copyright allows you to stop unauthorised copying of your copyrighted work. It means that if you’ve created a work such as a film, music or book, you have a mechanism to prevent unlawful copying and reproduction of that work.

Copyright also gives you the right to stop people from doing things which make copying or distributing copies of your work to the public that bit easier. So it gives you the right to stop a shop owner from selling “knock-off” copies of your work, which were made without your permission.

While copyright is a right that you have instantly, without having to incur any cost, it also comes with its limitations. Copyright requires proof of copying of a whole or substantial part of the work.

This often isn’t a problem for straightforward black market distribution of media such as books, music and films because it is crystal clear that 100% of the work has been copied.

It gets harder when a substantial part of the work has been copied. Showing what a substantial part of your work looks like can be particularly tricky. In addition, having to show that there was actual copying rather than someone else just producing something similar to you completely independently is often a stumbling block.

Use of the © symbol

It is worth noting that you can use the copyright symbol, ©, along with your name and year of creation to emphasise that the work is protected by copyright. While this is not completely necessary it can be helpful to ensure that people cannot copy your work and later argue that they didn’t realise it was a protected work.

How long does it last?

Copyright is the longest-lasting type of IP right – in the UK and most of Europe. For most types of work copyright lasts up to 70 years following the death of the creator. So the length your new creation is protected by copyright is probably something you’ll never have to worry about, but something that the estates of rich and famous musicians and artists care about deeply.

Answer last updated: 17 Jan 2018