Copyright Law

April 9, 2021

In the United Kingdom there’s no official government copyright law office to register your artistic works.

In simple terms, copyright law states that copyright is an automatic legal right, automatically granted to the author(s) or originator(s), both during its development and once the work has been finalised.

The copyright term of literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work is the lifetime of the creator, plus seventy years. As the owner and copyright holder of this work, there’s no legal requirement to register this work but if a dispute arises, for a successful outcome in your favour, you may be required to prove that the work is yours, and the date that work was created. This is where the problem can lie.

Proving that you’re the original creator of your work and the date of creation can be more difficult than it first seems. If you’ve created your work on your computer or device, how do you prove it? System dates and times on computers and devices can be easily changed by any novice, so this is not indisputable proof should you be challenged.

COPYRIGHT LAW SIMPLIFIED

We’ll keep this quick, as the subject of copyright law can be complex, but nonetheless it’s important, especially in the age of the Internet when your copyright material is just a “right click” away from being stolen. 

The main UK statutes in play now are:

The Statute of Anne was the first British copyright law, enacted in 1709 and entering into force on April 10, 1710. This statute first accorded exclusive rights to authors rather than publishers and it included protections for consumers of printed work ensuring that publishers could not control their use after sale. It also limited the duration of such exclusive rights to 28 years, after which all works would pass into the public domain. It is generally considered to be the first fully-fledged copyright law in the world.

It’s been the long held view that, for copyright, a scheme of compulsory registration before publication, such that exists in patents act, is more trouble than it is worth; and under the current Berne Convention system there’s no need for registration of title at all.

But the English copyright registration system started by the Statute of Anne and survived in one form or another until 1912, was more flexible. Under the Copyright Act 1842 registration at Stationers’ Hall was merely evidence of title, not proof; and there was no obligation to register unless one wanted to bring an action for infringement, in which case it was held to be sufficient to register before issuing the writ (Warne v Lawrence (1886) 54 LT 371).

Since the Statute of Anne almost three hundred years ago, countries like the United States have adopted the fundamental principles of English copyright law into their own copyright system. One crucial feature of US copyright law, which is noticeably absent and desperately needed in English law, is the concept of copyright registration.

Fast forward to today and the current UK law that covers intellectual property rights are the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 , The Copyright and Rights in Databases Regulations 1997 and Copyright and Related Rights Regulations 2003 (AKA the EU copyright directive).

INTERNATIONAL COPYRIGHT TREATIES

The most influential international copyright treaty for copyright is the Berne Convention . The WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) provide a good summary of its 3 basic principle (as shown below). All countries who sign up this treaty will be expected to abide by these important basic principles ( Source : WIPO ) :

(a) Works originating in one of the Contracting States (that is, works the author of which is a national of such a State or works first published in such a State) must be given the same protection in each of the other  Contracting States as the latter grants to the works of its own nationals (principle of “national treatment”) .

(b) Protection must not be conditional upon compliance with any formality (principle of “automatic” protection)

(c) Protection is independent of the existence of protection in the country of origin of the work (principle of “independence” of protection). If, however, a Contracting State provides for a longer term of protection than the minimum prescribed by the Convention and the work ceases to be protected in the country of origin, protection may be denied once protection in the country of origin ceases.

Here is an up-to-date list from the WIPO of 179 countries who have signed it. It includes most of the world’s countries.

A useful summary list of additional international copyright related treaties and conventions can be found here.

THE OLD COPYRIGHT METHOD

The old system of verifying a date of work was called, “The Poor Man’s Copyright”.  This was when you would print out or take a copy of your material, put it in an envelope and mail it to yourself.  The postmark of the envelope from the post office, would serve as your proof of date and your work existing at that time. 

The problem with this method is that you will then have to keep this envelope with you for the rest of your life, making sure you don’t lose it or that it isn’t damaged.  On top of this, should you ever need to prove your copyright for that work, you’ll need to open the envelope, meaning it can’t be used again as proof, should you ever have a second case of copyright infringement. Also, courts are well aware that envelopes can be steamed open, contents replaced and re-sealed by anyone with a decent kettle ! So, this is obviously not the most reliable evidence to present in a court, and in our view, a more appropriate method is to have your work formally recorded by an independent, reputable and reliable body.

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