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The territory of the internet is far from being a lawless land. Earlier, the regulations were perplexing and were in their infancy. In today’s fast-paced world, the rights and duties in such a virtual environment are transparent and incredibly well defined. As it is a universe in which the exchange of information is constant and very rich, ranging from Former US President Barack Obama’s Hope Poster to the famous Indian music director Ilayaraja, one of the most sensitive and controversial issues in this regard is copyright infringement. But what is copyright?


Copyright protects your creative work and stops others from using it without your permission.

You get copyright protection automatically – you don’t have to apply for it or pay a fee. There isn’t an official register of copyright works in the UK like there is for trademarks, though many unofficial ones exist.

You automatically get copyright protection when you create:

  • original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work, including illustration and photography
  • original non-literary written work, such as software, web content and databases
  • sound and music recordings
  • film and television recordings
  • broadcasts
  • the layout of published editions of written, dramatic and musical works

You can mark your work with the copyright symbol (©), your name and the year of creation. Whether you mark the work or not doesn’t affect the level of protection you have. The Copyright Tribunal settles disputes on licensing but the licences register needs to be checked before filing a claim.

How copyright protects your work

Copyright prevents people from:

  • copying your work
  • distributing copies of it, whether free of charge or for sale
  • renting or lending copies of your work
  • performing, showing or playing your work in public
  • making an adaptation of your work
  • putting it on the internet

There are a few exceptions to the above such as use by libraries and schools .

Copyright overseas

Your work could be protected by copyright in other countries too, through international agreements, for example the Berne Convention.

In most countries copyright lasts a minimum of life plus 50 years for most types of written, dramatic and artistic work, and at least 25 years for photographs. It can be different for other types of work.Eg broadcasts are 50 years from the first broadcast while films are protected 70 years after the death of the director, screenplay author and music composer.

In the UK, copyright does not subsist in a literary, dramatic, or musical work unless and until it is recorded, in writing or otherwise. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 talks about how copyright ownership belongs to the owner, except when an employee creates the work during employment. There is protection of 70 years for non-computer- work and 50 years for computer-generated work. However, in 2017, the British Parliament passed the Digital Economy Act, which expanded the powers of British communication’s regulatory agencies and extends criminal penalties to online infringements from 2 to 10 years for serious offences. It also includes a Mens Rea provision. Right holders can now also claim copyright fees for retransmission of Public Service broadcasts via cable.

Contractual agreement

Unless a copyright owner is the only person going to use his or her copyright work contracts are likely to be agreed at some point.You may wish to seek advice from a solicitor, perhaps one specialising in copyright and contract law, before proceeding with licensing or assigning your copyright .

Contractual agreements are likely to be important when you:

  • need a partner to help exploit the copyright work
  • wish to negotiate the sale or other transfer of copyright
  • would like to agree a licence with someone else who wants to use the copyright work
  • would like someone else, such as a collecting society, to administer some or all of the rights and collect royalties worldwide.

In some cases it might be important to obtain a non disclosure agreement while sharing and negotiating on price for copyright protected work, for example a film script, especially if the work has not been published and is not in the public domain.

Copyright may also be transferred through inheritance.

Implied licence

An implied licence to use a copyright work might arise when there is nothing in writing granting the user a licence and a licence has not even been agreed verbally with the copyright owner. However it is always better to ensure that any agreement about a licence is recorded in some way.

It is only possible to argue that an implied licence exists where all the circumstances suggest that the copyright owner expected the user to make use of the copyright material in the way they intended, even though this was never discussed and has not been written down anywhere. For example, this might occur where a person has commissioned the creation of a work (for example, a company logo or a corporate training video), but has not agreed a licence with the creator to use the work.

Sell your copyright

If you decide to sell or transfer your copyright there would need to be a written, signed contract stating a transfer has taken place. This is known as an assignment.

You should note that with certain copyright material even if you sell copyright in the work you may still have certain moral rights. For instance you may have the right to be identified as the author (provided you have asserted that right previously) and the right to object to any derogatory treatment of your work. Moral rights in a work cannot be transferred or ‘assigned’ but you are entitled to waive those rights.

The UK has a suitable copyright renewal mechanism and institutional protective environment. To establish a copyright protection system that is compatible with the freedom of news and information dissemination while also preventing fake news and infringement in the digital age, reconstructing the balance of interests of all copyright owners versus social media sharing by individuals and businesses while ensuring the continuous growth of the country’s digital economy is extremely important. Fighting against online infringement is an integral part of the British government’s improvement of the copyright protection mechanism. PACT is a membership organisation for creatives working to actively preserve copyright owner’s work.

Other important regulatory bodies for communications such as Ofcom(Office of Communications) and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have guidelines on digital content. So also the BCAP and CAP (Broadcast/Code Of Advertising Practice) that provide marketing and advertising guidance as well as the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) that regulates advertising need to be followed.

Organisations like the Performing Rights Society (PRS) in the UK and other organisations overseas collects royalties for copyright owned performances.  Simultaneously, the government has also eased procedures for copyright protection, making copyright infringement claims more convenient, faster, and more efficient.

In 2015, an interesting and controversial US judgment was passed on the song “Happy Birthday.” It was declared that the song was not protected and was in the public domain and only the piano arrangement and not the lyrics or melody. Until then, this music track was not allowed to the public without remunerating the music group- Warner/ Chappell. The question to be asked is how something so universal got away for so long?

Thus copyright law is very interesting and covers books, films, TV series, art and music, all very popular online and constantly changes with case law.

From January 2021 Copyright Law is changing once again due to Brexit as a substantial part of UK copyright law is derived from EU copyright framework. However the international ties in place will still offer protection.

In conclusion, copyright is an exclusive right owned by its creators so their efforts can be rewarded and music, books, films, TV, art and other works of creativity are encouraged. The ultimate goal of copyright is that human creativity is preserved and not made freely accessible to everyone at the expense of the owner. In this digital era, with many countries implementing and amending acts, the question to be asked is- digital media is ever-changing but can copyright laws keep up?

For further help with copyright assignment and licensing contracts or other online media related advice, please contact our specialist media and entertainment solicitor Reina Menezes D’costa via

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