What is copyright?
‘The exclusive right to publish or record a work.’ (Little Oxford English Dictionary)
‘The exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.’ (Unknown)
Copyright applies to ‘intellectual property’. This encompasses such things as: Names of products or brands; Inventions; Design or look of a product; Things written, made or produced.
Regulation of the publishing industry was first established in England with the formation of the Worshipful Company of Stationers in 1403. It was initially responsible for establishing and enforcing regulations. Later it also took responsibility for regulating and disciplining the industry. In effect an early version of the modern day ombudsman, watchdog or regulator. This regulating of the industry however, did not provide copyright protection as we know it today.
Copyright as we know it came about with the advent of the printing press and wider literacy. King Charles II became concerned because publishers were now able to copy books as they wished, completely unregulated. He therefore passed the Licensing of the Press Act 1662. This in effect is when the principle of modern day copyright came into being.
Why is copyright necessary?
There are a number of beneficial factors. The United Kingdom (UK) Government website provides the following statements.
‘Having the right type of intellectual property protection helps you to stop people stealing or copying:
- the names of your products or brands
- your inventions
- the design or look of your products
- things you write, make or produce’
‘Copyright prevents people from:
- copying your work
- distributing copies of it, whether free of charge or for sale
- renting or lending copies of your work
- performing, showing or playing your work in public
- making an adaptation of your work
- putting it on the internet’
These examples cover the issue adequately for most.
How is copyright obtained?
Copyright is usually incorporated within national legislations. Consequently, the conditions tend to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
As a rule, copyright is granted automatically upon the creation of something in a ‘tangible’ form. Note: copyright is not applicable to the originating idea. For example: The ideas an author had for their story, whether fictional or actual, have no protection. It is only when produced in written form; book, pamphlet, on-line and so-on that copyright may apply.
It used to be required, for copyright to be applied, the originator include a copyright notice with their product e.g. the © symbol combined with a name and year. As copyright is now considered to be automatically granted upon the creation of the protected material the inclusion of this notice is no longer considered necessary. However, it is sensible and wise to always include such a notice as it would help if a plagiarism (the copying of someone else’s work and presenting it as their own) case has to be brought. Without it the accused may claim ignorance. Apparently, in some such instances, the eventual award in a proven case has been less because of this omission.
The format of such a notice is left to the copyright holder. There are no hard and firm rules, though there are recommendations. The notice may simply consist of the symbol, name and year though in the majority of instances, at least when it comes to books, there are additional statements regarding reproduction, lending, format etc.
How is copyright protected?
Unlike patents (the design for a new invention) for which a registry exits there is no such registry in the UK, nor in many other jurisdictions, for the registration of copyright works.
There are a few alternatives such as asking a notary public to date the material or depositing a copy of the work with a bank or solicitor. In all these instances a fee will undoubtedly be payable. This may be an issue for the independent (indie) creator as most have little in the way of resources. There are also some private companies who hold unofficial registries. Again a fee will be payable and before handing money over the creator should carefully check what they would be paying for. In all instances the aim is to establish an originating date. The most popular and widely mentioned method is to use the postal service as explained next.
Postal service protection (Often referred to as the ‘Poor Man’s Copyright’): This is where the creator sends themselves a copy of the work by some method of recorded delivery. For this to be effective the following are important:
- The package must have a clear date stamp on it. (A legally recognised date of possession is vital in any infringement or plagiarism action.)
- The package MUST be left UNOPENED. (Opening it would allow for an accusation of manipulation or replacement.)
Those who use the postal method need to be aware there is no real support for the method. But, it is better than nothing and may come into its own if some valid cases are brought. Of course, for indie creators cost may again be an issue as there is no such thing as a cheap court case. Note: These actions do not come within the jurisdiction of a small claims court.
Methods for protecting copyright within the creator’s own jurisdiction have been discussed above. But what about protection within other jurisdictions?
International agreements: Most jurisdictions have established or signed up to an international agreement. For example: The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. Article 1 [Establishment of a Union] states: ‘The countries to which this Convention applies constitute a Union for the protection of rights of authors in their literary and artistic works.’ Consequently, the creator of a work is granted the same rights of protection as they hold under the legislations of their resident jurisdiction. Where a jurisdiction has not signed up to or established their own international agreement the creator will need to check whether any relevant legislation exists within that jurisdiction.
Library of Congress: In the United States of America (USA) a creator of a work (author or otherwise) may, for a small fee, deposit a copy of their work with the Library of Congress. This provides a record of the work along with notification of the creator’s right of copyright if attached. It is not necessary for such a notice to be included but it obviously makes sense to add it. Note: The library is NOT a copyright registry. It is simply a depository. Naturally, it makes sense for a creator to lodge their work but they should not make the mistake of thinking such lodgement provides an indefensible right of copyright. If there is an alleged infringement or accusation of plagiarism it will still have to be upheld in a court of law.
Non USA citizens may apply to lodge a copy of their work with the Library though there is some debate as to whether it would in any way prove beneficial if they have to bring a case. Such a deposit would provide a record but whether it would be worth the fee and effort is in doubt as other jurisdictions will more than likely require evidence recognised under their own legislations.
How long does copyright last for?
Copyright commences as soon as a work is created. Once copyright has expired anyone may use the work.
In most jurisdictions copyright lasts for the lifetime of the creator plus fifty years. However, within some jurisdictions this was recently increased, for written, dramatic, musical and artistic works, to the lifetime of the creator plus seventy (70) years. Authors should note this latter period now applies to their newly created books.
Copyright may be sold or transferred as well as transferred by means of inheritance. This will not impact upon the period of protection; the new owner will still only hold the rights for the same original period i.e. lifetime of original creator plus seventy years.
Naturally, there is a lot more to the topic but here it is only intended to provide an overall appreciation of copyright law and how to benefit from it.
Some indie creators may question if it is worth all the bother and effort to establish their right of copyright. In the writer’s opinion the answer must be Yes. The internet has vastly changed matters. There are many rogue sites and, sadly, many dishonest people who look to take advantage of innocent, inexperienced or naïve creators. For example: Several authors have found their books offered for free download on sites they have not granted a licence to or even submitted a copy of their book to.
Copyright legislation is complex and vast. It can be onerous, costly and stressful to prove an infringement. It is also frequently outside a copyright holder’s means to take the matter to court. Nevertheless, establishing a copyright can be helpful. For example: some abuses are conducted in social media outlets where the creator may contact the relevant corporation and request the material be removed and/or the false originator blocked from using the site further.
If a creator has to prove their right of copyright and/or bring a case, they are advised to consult an appropriate legal advisor.