What is copyright?

16th April 2024

What is copyright?

Copyright is a protection that springs up upon the writing down of an original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work; the making of a sound recording, video/film or broadcast and the typographical arrangement of a published work. There is no need for the work to have intrinsic artistic merit, nor for it to be made public, nor for it to be registered. The protection is from unauthorised copying and the remedies for infringement are various but primarily protect the author’s value in their work.

Copyrighted work is protected for 70 years after the author’s death.

In the modern information-society, copyrighted material is around us all the time and the ubiquitous “device” gives all of us the capacity to create as well as access more copyrighted material than we can imagine. But does the simplicity of creation and broad accessibility change anything?

No. The bar for creation has always been low and the method of creation is irrelevant. Neither does simplifying access to the copyrighted materials extinguish any of the rights of authors.

When can you use copyrighted material (CM)?

On the basis that copyright is designed to protect commercial interests in copyrighted material, the primary route is through a contract. Such agreements may be formal and complex documents or mundane and simple such as the purchase of a newspaper. Generally speaking, copyrighted material published on websites is offered subject to terms of service which are also a contract between the publisher and the browser. This may or may not involve a paywall or subscription but whether “free” or paid, will be published subject to certain conditions of use.

There are other permitted acts and exemptions to copyright protection including;

* for research and private study, subject to fair dealing and acknowledgement

* libraries and archives are a special case

* for education, subject to fair dealing

* text and data for non-commercial research

* reporting current events, subject to fair dealing

* quotation, subject to fair dealing

*caricature, parody or pastiche, subject to fair dealing

* temporary copies as part of a technological process

* computer programs for specific purposes including back-ups, integration and testing

* abstracts of scientific or technical articles

* incidental recordings relating to a broadcasts

Can businesses forward or republish copyrighted material on websites if they have paid a subscription?

This will be detailed in the conditions of use, but usually website terms of service do not allow use of the copyrighted material by anyone other than the subscriber. In most cases where the subscriber is a business or organisation there is also a limit on the number of natural persons allowed to consume the copyrighted material. As such republishing copyrighted material even within an organisation needs to be checked against the terms of the licence and forwarding outside of the organisation is unlikely to be acceptable

What are collection societies?

Businesses publishing copyrighted material often join collection societies to police their terms and make the process of gathering up licence fees more efficient.

The collection societies are authorised by the Government to act on the behalf of publishing businesses to issue licences and collect royalties which are then distributed to the rights holders. There are different collection societies for different types of copyrighted material such as magazine content, newspaper content, music performances, film distribution and reproductions of art. NLA Media Access, Copyright Licensing Agency and PRS for Music are among UK collection societies.

Collection societies may contact businesses and organisations “out of the blue” if they believe the organisation is using copyrighted material without a licence. They have a particular focus on recipients of forwarded and republished materials. These letters are often genuine (despite appearing scam-like!) and you should take advice on whether your business or organisation needs a licence for the use they make of copyrighted material even if this has been forwarded by a licensed party or is unsolicited.

What about a short summary or digest of the latest information?

The practice of forwarding digests of material is only acceptable where the digest is highly limited (perhaps even less than a newspaper headline) or has been separately curated and the recipient that reads the full article has an appropriate licence.