How can I protect my copyright?

Whether you are an entrepreneur setting up a new social enterprise or an established business aiming to widen your social media appeal and improve your website. You need to have a strategy in place to protect your copyright and ensure that you own and control any such rights.

Original work and presumption of ownership

  • Where you wish to be recognised as the legal copyright owner you must either be:
  1. the author of an ‘original’ work which you have created through your own hard work or
  2. have been assigned the rights from another person who was the original creator or
  3. have been assigned the rights from a company who owned those rights. A distributor, for example would acquire the copyright in artwork for a marketing brochure by requiring the consultant to complete an assignment document to transfer all the rights including copyright.
  • Both the Universal Copyright Convention and the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 as amended confirm that a copyright notice constitutes a clear presumption of copyright ownership.
  • The original work must also be created in a material or medium which is recognised under the legislation as falling within the ambit of copyright. Film, sound recordings, text, photographs and stills, music, lyrics and artwork are all protected. You will need to look carefully at the nature of the work and the form in which it has been created in order to discover whether it is protected by copyright or not.

Copyright notice

  • The common practice is to put © [personal/company name] [year in which it is created or published].
  • If you look inside the cover of any book you will find a copyright notice. It may include the name of the author and the year of publication. The name of the publisher will be displayed if the author has assigned the copyright.
  • If the text has been updated over a period of time then the copyright notice for a website or book may include a period of years: © [name] 1990-2018.
  • Copyright notices appear at the end of films, on labels, in packaging, in content for websites and for illustrators and recording artists. There is often a combination of copyright notices, trade mark notices, credits and acknowledgements.
  • Problems can arise in respect of websites where someone has put the copyright owner as the domain name rather than the company which actually owns the copyright as an asset.
  • It is recommended that you review the copyright position in relation to each different type of medium and material which is used or displayed on a website, app or product. It may be that the text is owned by A, the photographs by B and the logo by C. This process forces you to discover who actually does or will own different rights in any project.

Draft proposals

  • You may also use a copyright notice on material when sending a synopsis by email as an attachment or by post.
  • You may also confirm that the material is supplied only to a specific person or company and is subject to the terms of any final contract. That no authority is provided to make copies or to supply the material to third parties without prior written consent.
  • You may wish to put confidential on the synopsis and email. Some agents and advisors require the conclusion of a confidentiality agreement before significant information is disclosed.

New developments and translations

  • Where the distributor who is acquiring rights in your material under a licence intends to create new versions or developments of the original work, it is imperative that any such intellectual property rights, trade marks, computer software rights and copyright in any new versions or developments which may be created in the future are assigned to you so that you own them.
  • Failure to address this issue in the agreement may result in a claim by the distributor at a later date that they own all such new developments and that no further payments or royalties are due for such rights.
  • The parties may decide that they will hold joint copyright and intellectual property rights in the new developments. There would therefore be a copyright notice or credit for the original version and another for the new developments in joint names.
  • In any event you should not be left with the distributor or marketing company or illustrator owning the rights in any new development. Third parties need to be asked to sign assignment documents to transfer any rights they may hold to you, the original creator.
  • Copyright notices are often not reproduced when translations in other languages are exploited which causes unnecessary disputes years later. There should be a copyright notice for the original text and then another for the translated version of the text. Where a translator is engaged to create a different language version, they should be required to make an assignment of those rights to the company.

Contractual obligations

  • A contract may require that a copyright notice be put not only on the product itself but also on any associated packaging, promotional and online material.
  • A distributor may also be required to agree that it will not register any copyright, intellectual property rights, logo, name, text, computer software or other material as a trade mark, patent or in any copyright register or with any collecting society or any other organisation worldwide.

Draft material and early stages

  • Always keep your draft copies of how you created your original material including any drawings, notes and research. If your project becomes successful you may need it one day when someone decides to challenge you as to your originality.
  • It is surprising how often people who have plagiarised a work get caught out by copying mistakes that have been deliberately made in the text or make up of a garment which they then replicate.
  • Where you are working on an idea with friends and family members make sure you clarify the legal position as to who owns the copyright and who owns any company you have set up. If they have done work for you as a favour get a proper assignment completed and pay a small sum in consideration to buy them out.

No registration system

  • There is no registration system for copyright in the UK which provides protection that is recognised in law. It is useful however to write yourself a letter with copies of all the relevant documents inside and to post it to yourself recorded delivery but not open it. This only goes so far as to prove what you posted yourself on a certain day, but it fixes it in time.

Deborah Fosbrook is the author of Contract and Copyright Drafting Skills, The Complete A-Z of Contract Clauses Pack and The Media and Business Contracts Handbook

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