If you’re an author in the UK, you can benefit by having a thorough understanding of UK copyright law and complementary issues, and how they apply to the works you produce.
Copyright is defined as the exclusive right to perform, or authorise others to perform, particular acts with respect to specific types of work. These ‘acts’ may include selling, reproducing, duplicating, or hiring the work. Authors are particularly interested in copyright protection with respect to literary works, including including books, articles, newsletters, and more.
The form and expression of ideas are subject to copyright protection, but the ideas themselves are not.
As with copyright in the US, Canada, and other countries, any original work you create in the UK is automatically protected by copyright. There is no registration requirement in order to have your work protected. Many authors use the copyright symbol © in practice as a public declaration of their ownership of the material. However, using this symbol does not add to the legal copyright status of your work. Conversely, not using it does not take away the legal copyright status of your work.
Copyright protection varies in duration depending on the nature of the work. As it concerns authors, copyright protection for literary works extend 70 years beyond the end of the calendar year in which the author of the work died.
To understand whether copyright infringement has occurred, they key term is ‘substantial’. If you copy another person’s work without the permission of the owner, and a court determines that copying is ‘substantial’, you may be in violation of UK copyright law. However, we could find no clear definition or standard of what ‘substantial’ means. The courts decide these cases on a one-by-one basis. In some instances even a non-exact duplication of a small portion of a piece of work may be deemed a violation of copyright. You should also beware that, again like the US and Canada, in the UK you are responsible for defending against copyright infringement of your work.
It is generally the original author of a particular work who will own copyright. The exception is the employee who creates a work during the course of his or her employment. Whether you’re a direct employee, on contract, or on an apprenticeship, work you prepare for an employer will fall under their copyright, and not yours.
If you’re a freelance writer, you would own copyright to your work unless you specifically relinquish any claim to copyright. In that case you would sign a copyright assignment agreement with the entity that commissioned your work stipulating you relinquish/assign copyright for your work. (A legally binding assignment of copyright must be in writing and signed by or on behalf of the person who is transferring the copyright, i.e. the assignor.)
Written works posted on websites are subject to the same copyright standards as hardcopy material found in a magazine or book, etc. If you’re creating written work that is published online, or you are accessing research material you’ve found online in your written work, you’ll want to exercise a level of caution. Just because you’re finding information freely online does not mean you can freely use what you find without due consideration of copyright.
Under UK copyright law, you can gain either an exclusive or nonexclusive licence from the copyright owner and use (some of) their material.
An exclusive licence provides an individual, to the exclusion of all other individuals, including the person providing the licence, the authority to exercise one or more rights with respect to the original work, which would otherwise be within the exclusive domain of the copyright owner to exercise. A legally binding exclusive licence must be in writing and signed by the copyright owner or someone with authorization to represent the copyright owner.
If, as an author of a work, you wish to grant certain individuals permission to use your material for limited purposes, you may grant them a non-exclusive licence. You can offer such a licence in one of two forms – express or implied.
An express nonexclusive licence will usually contain a copyright statement; for instance, in the terms and conditions page of the website. The information contained therein will often provide guidance on what is ‘permitted use.’
An implied non-exclusive licence may be in force when no specific discussion has occurred regarding copyright issues between the two parties. For instance, a publisher may have an implied nonexclusive licence to publish articles written by a freelance author who submits those articles to the publisher for such a purpose, yet without a formal agreement or discussion having taken place about the matter.
UK copyright law permits the use of copyrighted material without the owner’s permission under certain confined circumstances. For instance, the exception referred to as ‘fair dealing’ may be applicable when the copyright material is to be used only for purposes of private study or non-commercial research. In most cases, research and work performed by freelance authors will fall under a commercial application, since in most of these cases the research and work being done is for commercial gain.
The fair dealing exception also covers activities such as review, criticism, and reporting of current news events. This exception allows freelance journalists to reproduce ideas from other news sources and express them in a unique manner. Fair dealing applies to written copy, but not for the duplication of photographs used in such work.
What do you do if, as the owner of a written work, you believe your copyright has been infringed? You have the option to bring a claim in civil court against the offending party. UK courts have particular remedies available to address copyright infringement. Those remedies include awarding compensation (damages) or issuing an injunction that prohibits any further infringement actions.
The criminal courts can impose serious consequences, such as imprisonment and/or fines, if they determine that any person has deliberately infringed copyright of a commercial work.
Now you have some added insight into UK copyright law and the issues that affect authors, journalists and other writers. Make best use of your rights and privileges to create and protect your works. And licence those works in the manner you choose.
Boni is co-founder of Ingenium Books. She's author of One Million Readers: The Definitive Strategy to a Nonfiction Book Marketing Strategy that Saves Time, Money, and Sells More Books. Boni is an author coach, editor, and ghostwriter. As an award-winning former Canadian television reporter, news anchor, producer, and talk show host, working under the names Boni Fox and Boni Fox Gray (it's a long story), Boni covered politics, government, the economy, health, First Nations, and crime. She won several Canadian Association of Broadcaster (CAB) awards and a Jack Webster Award for best documentary. Boni also held senior management roles in government, leading teams responsible for editorial, issues management, media relations, and strategic communications planning. Boni is co-author of Rock Your Business: 26 Essential Lessons to Start, Run, and Grow Your New Business From the Ground Up and, like any good author, has several books in progress.
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