Principles of Profit

Copyright – what do you own and what are your rights?

From your brand to your book, poetry to prose, picture or next high street ‘must have’, it is important to protect your original work and be aware of your rights. 

Copyright laws protect created ‘works’ from being copied without permission, as well as legal protection they also give the author certain other rights.  So, what exactly is a ‘copyright work’, who owns the copyright, what are the rights conferred by the copyright laws, how long do they last and just how do you protect your work?

First and foremost the work must be original.

What exactly is a copyright work?
There are a number of ‘works’ that are protected by copyright and include literarydramaticmusical or artistic works, sound recordingsfilmsbroadcasts and typographical arrangements of published works (the way a printed work is laid out).

A book, fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry is a literary work and is protected by copyright.

Who owns the copyright?
The author or creator the work is the owner of the copyright. The exception to this rule is in the case of works created by an employee in the course of employment, in which case the copyright will be owned by the employer.

Even if someone commissions a copyright work to be created, the author (rather than the person who commissions it) still owns the copyright, unless there is a written agreement to the contrary.

What protection is given by copyright?
Copyright laws give the copyright owner the exclusive right to copy the work, issue copies, communicate it in any way, including rent or lend the work, make an adaptation and perform, show or play the work to the public.

If someone other than the author wants to do any of the above they must obtain the permission of the copyright owner, otherwise it will be an infringement of copyright. So, the reading aloud, to the public, of a literary work, without the copyright owner’s permission will be a copyright infringement.

Authors also have ‘moral rights’, which give the author the right to be identified as the author of a work and give them the right not to have the work subjected to derogatory treatment.

How long does copyright last?
Currently Copyright in literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works lasts for the life of the author, plus 70 years.  Other rules apply in the case of sound recordings, films, broadcasts and typographical arrangements.

How do I protect a copyright work?
In the UK there is no system of copyright registration.  Once a copyright work has been created it is automatically protected by copyright and there is nothing else you can do to protect it further.

There are some organisations that offer ‘registration of copyright’ but these are unofficial and, in the UK, give no extra protection to an author except that ‘registrations’ with these types of organisations can be used as evidence as to when a work was created.  A simple way to achieve this is by posting a copy of the work to yourself and leave the envelope unopened.  The dated postmark will achieve the same result.

How do I exploit my copyright?
Copyright owners can licence others to deal with their works and come in the form of publishing agreements or agreements to adapt the work into a film or radio broadcast.

Such agreements will provide the author with a right to receive royalty payments which are usually based on a percentage of the selling price.  Some agreements also provide for an upfront payment to be made to the author in addition to royalties.

More and more, as large publishing houses’ merge and lists shrink there are an increasing number of self-publishing opportunities, which enableauthors to commercially publish their own work and back catalogue.  

Care should be taken when entering into such agreements (whether self-publishing or otherwise).  You need to be clear on what rights are you giving away…

  • Are you agreeing for your work to be published in all formats (including digital)?
  • How long will the agreement last?
  • How much will you be paid?
  • Does the publisher have the right to remainder your book?
  • Is the publisher under any obligation to continue publication after so long?
  • Is the publisher under any obligation to promote and market your book?
  • Do they have the rights to negotiate the film or other rights?
  • Are you under any obligation to offer them your next book?

Lastly, what do I need to think about after I’m no longer around?
Since copyright lasts beyond the grave you should give some thought as to what will happen on your death.

You can bequeath your rights under the terms of your will and you should therefore consider who you would want to take over the ownership of the rights.  You can of course leave the rights to your family or friends or you might want to consider a charitable donation. JM Barrie famously left all his rights to Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street hospital.

Whatever you want to do with your original works, remember, always seek legal advice on the best and most appropriate strategy for you and be secure in the knowledge that you can protect and profit by your ideas.

Published by kind permission of Kate Reid, Pemberton Reid

A highly experienced and trusted legal advisor to BIG, Kate holds an LLB honours degree and post-graduate diploma in Intellectual Property Law and Practice.