Five things everyone should know about copyright protection

6 minute read
30 May 2023


When it comes to the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights, copyright is often overlooked by brand owners in favour of other registered rights, such as trademarks. While registered rights are useful tools to have, copyright has a number of benefits that can be useful to copyright holders when they discover that a third party has copied them.

In the second instalment of our copyright article series, we answer five commonly asked questions about copyright and what you need to know.  

1. How do I get copyright protection for my work?

In the UK, no formalities need to be observed for a piece of work to be afforded copyright protection. Instead, copyright protection applies automatically upon the creation of a variety of different types of work, including literary, dramatic and artistic works, computer programs and software code, sound recordings, films and broadcasts. In other words, provided the work produced is "original" (meaning an author's own intellectual creation), copyright protection will arise automatically.

This also means that the first owner of copyright will usually be the person who created the work. There are a few exceptions to this rule, the most notable being where an employee produces a piece of work in the course of their employment. In this situation, the copyright in that work is owned by the employer and not the employee. 

This exception does not apply to freelancers and independent contractors, who usually retain the copyright in any works they produce, unless there is an express contractual provision to the contrary. It is therefore important to ensure that when outsourcing work to contractors and freelancers, suitable contracts have been put in place that contain clear copyright assignment provisions.

2. Do I need to register copyright in the UK?

In the UK, there is no mandatory registration system for copyright works. In other words, copyright protection arises automatically on creation of the work without the need for registration. It should be noted that the rules on whether copyright protection automatically applies varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, for example, both China and the USA require copyright to be registered.

The lack of a copyright registration system in the UK means that it is significantly harder for authors of copyright works to identify infringements because there is no central register that can be monitored. Similarly, as there are no registration certificates or the like it can be difficult to prove ownership of copyright in any given work.

It is therefore important for authors to keep accurate and organised records of the date they created their works. Some authors choose to also mark their work with the copyright symbol (©), their name and the year of creation. Although a copyright notice is not, strictly speaking, a requirement in the UK, it is a useful indicator of copyright ownership. Records of ownership and copyright notices can also be used to establish the existence and ownership of rights in the event of a legal dispute.

3. How long does copyright protection last?

The length of copyright protection is considerably longer than for most other types of intellectual property rights. The duration of copyright protection is largely dependent on the type of work in question and whether it is published or unpublished. However, generally, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author died.

4. What does copyright protect?

As explained above, copyright applies to, among other things, literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. This means that copyright protection applies to a wide range of creative works including photographs, paintings, television show recordings, websites and even databases, employee guidance and training materials. In fact, this very article you are reading is protected by copyright!

Copyright is not only flexible in terms of the types of work it covers, it is also flexible in terms of infringement claims. A copyright owner can claim infringement of a section of their work, provided a substantial part of that work has been copied. This is a qualitative test, so a small part being copied may be sufficient provided it is an important part of the overall work. This flexibility can make it difficult for infringers to defend copyright infringement claims.

5. Where else is my work protected by copyright?

Copyright is a broad right as it is automatically protected in a large number of territories through the UK's membership of international treaties, such as the Berne Convention. As a result, creative works produced in the UK and falling within the scope of the Berne Convention will automatically be afforded protection in each member state of the convention.

Copyright is also a broad right in the sense that different rights can exist in a single work. For example, if an artist were to release a new single in a vinyl format, the vinyl would be afforded copyright protection in:

  • the sound recording of the single;
  • the sheet music relating to the sound recording;
  • the lyrics in written form;
  • the artwork featured on the cover of the vinyl; and
  • any text featured on the vinyl.

So as is made clear, copyright can be an incredibly useful tool to businesses looking to protect their work, be it in written or other formats. For example, if a competitor decides they like the content of your website and makes copies of the work, enforcing your copyright is the best way to resolve the situation.

Our team has considerable expertise in copyright law. We urge businesses with concerns about being copied to get in touch so we can help protect your rights.

To learn more about copyright, read our previous article on the basics of copyright law.

NOT LEGAL ADVICE. Information made available on this website in any form is for information purposes only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. You should not rely on, or take or fail to take any action based upon this information. Never disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking legal advice because of something you have read on this website. Gowling WLG professionals will be pleased to discuss resolutions to specific legal concerns you may have.