How does copyright work?

Yellow copyright symbol on a blue background

In the UK, laws surrounding copyright date back as far as the 18th century, and the concept of protecting people’s work from being copied and sold by others is even older. But how exactly do these rules work? Here, we explore the meaning of copyright, how it can help you to protect your work and why it is so important.

What does copyright mean?

Put simply, copyright refers to the legal right to control the production and sale of creative material. Once an original, tangible idea has been expressed by someone in physical form, copyright laws protect the use of this work. In order for work to meet copyright requirements, it must be the product of the creator’s own skill and labour. These laws don’t apply to works that replicate other people’s creations. Copyright also doesn’t apply to ideas. It only comes into effect once an idea has been expressed in physical form - for example, once a musical score has been written down.

Copyright relates to a wide variety of creative works, from literature and art to drama and music. It also applies to non-literary written work, such as databases, software and web content, as well as to film and TV recordings, broadcasts, and sound and music recordings.

How does copyright protect your work?

Copyright laws exist to protect your work and to prevent others from using it without your permission. It is designed to stop people from copying your work and distributing copies of it, whether they do this for a fee or free of charge. It also prevents people from renting out or lending copies of your work, and from making adaptations of it. In addition, it stops others from showing, performing or playing your work in public, and from putting it on the internet.

The deliberate violation of copyright can be treated as a criminal offence, and in certain cases the police or trading standards can become involved, for example if counterfeit copies of DVDs are made.

You get the legal protection afforded by copyright laws automatically, meaning you don’t have to apply for it or pay a fee. There is no register of copyrighted works. This is in contrast to trade marks, which need to be formally registered with the Intellectual Property Office in order to have legal standing.

When you create something original and want to make sure that other people and businesses recognise it as your work and treat it accordingly, you can mark it with the copyright symbol (©), along with your name and the year the content was created.

Your work might also be protected by copyright in other countries, for example through international agreements such as the Berne Convention, which states that copyright works are legally protected even when they leave the country they were created in. Although each country has its own copyright laws, most will protect works created in other countries in the same way as they protect the creations of their own citizens.

Why is copyright important?

Copyright may be extremely important to you if you are involved in creating original work. The crucial thing it does is provide you with the legal grounds needed to pursue people who copy your work. If another party is using your work without your knowledge, you have a right to stop them from doing this and to pursue compensation for earnings they have made as a result of your work.

You also have the option of licensing your work. If your copyrighted material attracts the interest of another party, you may wish to give this individual or organisation an authorisation form that allows them to use some (or all) of your work covered by copyright. Licensing can be a good way to enhance the legal protection around your work and it serves as evidence if another party does not uphold their end of the deal.

The fact is, if you have an original idea and you express this idea tangibly, you have created a potential asset. Even if it doesn’t seem particularly valuable at first, it may end up having significant worth in the future and it might eventually be used as financial collateral. Thanks to copyright laws, you can ensure that as the person who came up with the idea, you are the one to benefit from it.

Copyrighted material can even serve as a legacy, as it can last for many decades and be passed down as part of a person’s estate. For example, the copyright for musical, artistic, written and dramatic works can last for 75 years, while films and sound and musical recordings can be copyrighted for 70 years. Broadcasts are under copyright for 50 years after they first air, and the layout of published versions of dramatic, musical or written works is under copyright for 25 years.

Know how to protect your rights

Unfortunately, copyright infringements are common, so it is important to pay attention to your intellectual property and to take action if you think other parties are flouting these laws and using your works without your permission. Whether you are a sole trader, a small business or a large organisation, taking proactive steps to protect your intellectual property can help you to safeguard your finances and secure your long-term success.

Access to further guidance and legal resources for business owners

Where can you go for reliable legal information and advice about copyright, intellectual property and a variety of other business issues, procedures and laws?

Often, online information regarding legal matters for businesses can be conflicting. For information you can rely on, visit the Markel Law Hub.

As a customer of Markel, you enjoy free access to the Markel Law Hub, an online resource of legal and business guides written by our team of expert solicitors.

The Law Hub currently helps over 50,000 users and contains:

  • 800+ legal resources including contracts, policies, forms, and letter templates from Markel’s expert solicitors
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How to access the Markel Law Hub

As a Markel Direct customer, you can access the Markel Law Hub by logging into your account and clicking the ‘Law Hub’ tab.

Not currently registered? Register for an account today and you’ll be able to access the Law Hub in minutes, as well as access your policy document and manage your policy online.

Click here to sign up to the Markel Law Hub. 


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