If you’ve read our introductory guide to intellectual property or you’re already familiar with the basics of copyright, you’ll know that copyright automatically protects an author’s original work from being copied, adapted or distributed by others.
This short guide sets out the detail of that protection, including how long and how far it extends, what happens to its ownership, validity and legal status in certain circumstances, and when it may have been infringed – giving the owner the right to enforce those legal rights and prevent any continuing unauthorised use.
What kind of works can be copyrighted, and how long for?
• Written, dramatic, musical, and artistic works: 70 years after the author’s death
• Layout of published editions of written, dramatic, or music works: 25 years from first published date
• Sound and music recordings: 70 years from first publish date
• Films: 70 years after the death of the director, screenwriter, and composer
• Broadcasts: 50 years from first broadcast date
If the author later assigns or licences the right to the copyright to someone else, the period of copyright protection always stays the same.
What happens to the copyright if the work is…?
All parties own the copyright, meaning that any licensing or publishing needs to be approved by everyone
Produced by an employee or contractor
Unless specifically agreed otherwise, work created by an employee is automatically owned by the employer, and work created by a contractor is automatically owned by the contractor
Used for educational purposes
Providing there aren’t any financial benefits to the users of the materials, a fair use along with full credit to the original author is acceptable
Copied by a library
This is allowed as long as the copied versions are difficult to replicate and are not loaned out
Required for legal reasons
Copyrighted works are allowed to be copied should they need to be used in judicial proceedings
The basis for a parody or caricature
If the new work is clearly different from the original and designed to be humorous, this is generally allowed. Do take care with parodies however, as there can be a fine line between what is a parody and what is plagiary as singer-songwriters, artists, TV producers and authors have all previously discovered, to their cost
If the quote used is just a small portion of the entire original piece, this is acceptable as long as the quote is attributed to the original author
Partially visible/audible in another piece of work
This is ok in scenarios where the copyrighted work is not completely in focus (e.g. a film scene may include a working television, but the actual programme that’s showing is not easily recognised)
Created to assist those with disabilities
As long as they aren’t being used commercially, copies of works can be recreated to accommodate braille, for example
If the use of, reference to or section from, the copyrighted work doesn’t fit with any of the above legitimate scenarios, it is very likely to constitute an infringement.
Where is copyright valid?
While copyright is automatically valid in the UK, these international conventions may mean that your work is protected in other countries too. Usually, these copyrights are valid for 25 years for photography and 50 years for written, dramatic, and artistic work.
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