How copyright protects your work

Posted on November 7, 2022
Posted by Marion Kennedy

Copyright protects your work by granting you the exclusive right to use and reproduce it. You can have copyright protection over different types of creative work, such as original artistic works, sound recordings, films, or broadcasts. This means that all others are excluded from using or reproducing your creation without explicit permission. 

This blog sets out how copyright protects your work, the types of works you can own copyright in, and whether you can register copyright. 

Note that the rules set out here only apply to works made since 1 August 1989. There are different rules for works made before this time. 

How copyright protects your work

Copyright is a form of legal protection which gives people who create literary, musical and artistic work the exclusive right to use it. 

You can’t register your copyright; it automatically arises if the relevant criteria are met. You should therefore be wary of any websites that claim to offer an official register for copyright at a price; any such record is not recognised by law. However, there are ways to help make it clear that you own copyright in a piece of work, to prevent others from reproducing it:

  1. You can state prominently on the work that you own the copyright in it, together with the year in which your ownership arose.
  2. You can mark your work with the international ‘©’ mark followed by your name and the year of creation. This can be particularly relevant when you are putting your work on a website since it can be accessed all over the world. 
  3. If your work is written down or otherwise recorded on paper rather than stored electronically, it can also help to send copies of it to trustworthy sources, such as your solicitor or even to yourself via a date-stamped delivery service, to be able to prove in the future that your work existed at a particular point in time

Types of work you can own a copyright in

Some common categories of work in which copyright can arise are as follows:

  1. written work such as books, plays, film scripts, essays, articles, professional opinions, web content and perhaps less obviously, tables, compilations and databases; 
  2. artistic works which can include photos, paintings, drawings, diagrams, maps, charts or plans; 
  3. computer programmes and preparatory design material for computer programmes; and
  4. films, music and broadcasts. 

You can’t own copyright in an idea or a name, although certain names can be protected by registering them as a trade mark.

Note that this is not an exhaustive list and there are other types of work in which you can own copyright, including dance and theatre. 

Joint copyright and sharing copyright

If authors collaborate on a work, they will be joint authors and collectively own the copyright in the work. To be joint authors, they must collaborate closely and each author must make a significant and original contribution to the creation of the work, as opposed to just making suggestions that lead to changes or amendments

See our Q&A for further guidance on using other people’s copyright.  

Copyright overseas

Although there is no such thing as general international copyright protection, many countries will protect copyright owned by people who do not live or do business there. For instance, if a country appears on the ‘WIPO Lex IP Treaties Collection List’ then they will protect copyright for foreign authors. For the countries on the list, you will not normally need to take any particular steps (such as registration) to establish your copyright. Copyright will exist in those countries automatically as soon as it would in the UK. 

You can also mark your work with the international ‘©’ mark followed by your name and the year of creation; this is not a requirement in the UK and does not have any formal legal effect, but it can be particularly helpful if your work is going to be published overseas as the sign does have legal effect in some countries. 

It is important to remember that rules on how you can enforce your copyright will differ from country to country. 

You can find out more about copyright protection, including how long protection can last for different types of work, in our Q&A.

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