Monday, August 23, 2010

Copyright or wrong?

Many writers get confused by copyright. Indeed, with legal staff specialising in this one small area of the law, it can instill fear and uncertainty in those who do not understand it.

However, for writers, understanding the basics will put you in good stead.

Copyright occurs as soon as you produce something artistic. (This can be something in writing, a drawing or picture, a photograph, some music, a video, etc). As I am typing this blog posting the copyright is being created. I don't have to register my copyright. Under current British and EU legislation, it is created as soon as I create something.

There is no copyright in facts, merely how they are expressed. And that's how I think of copyright. Copyright refers to the order of the words that you've written. You have the copyright in the sentences that you create and produce yourself.

As a copyright holder, you have the right to reproduce those words how and as you like, and you also have the right to give others the right to use those words. So, if you've written an article, you have copyright in that article, and therefore, you have the right to offer a magazine the right (First Serial Rights) to publish it. By retaining the copyright, you can also offer a website the right (Electronic rights) to use it on a website. You can offer a publisher the right to use the text in a book.

It is possible to assign (transfer) your copyright. This means that you no longer have the right to copy it yourself and offer rights to others to use it - the copyright holder now has that right. (So, if you transferred the copyright of some text you had produce to someone else, and you wanted to use the text again, you'd have to get permission from the copyright holder!) In many cases, writers should refrain from selling their copyright, so that they can continue to offer these other rights in their work. It is the copyright holder who has the authority to give others permission to use the work.

This also means that if you wish to quote someone else's work, you generally need permission and this should be sought from the copyright holder. The current UK and EU legislation does allow some 'fair use' quoting of someone else's work for specific purposes, such as critiquing or for review. However, the great British legal system has not defined what 'fair usage' is, because that depends upon each individual piece of work created. If a poem has 4 lines, and someone quoted 1 line, it begs the question - is quoting 25% of the text 'fair use'? A novelist would be upset if someone quoted 25% of their novel! This is why it can get tricky.

If you want to quote song lyrics, always get permission. Again, relatively speaking, songs are short pieces of text, so quoting one line could get you into trouble. There's an excellent article on The Guardian website about how one writer fell foul of copyright with song lyrics.

In the UK (and the EU), since 1st January 1996, copyright for writers lasts for 70 years after the end of the year of the death of the writer. So, if a writer died on 29th March 2010, their work remains in copyright until 31st December 2080. (Prior to 1996 it was 50 years after the writer's death.)

  • copyright is created as soon as you've created something artistic - written a series of words. You do not need to register copyright.
  • There is no copyright in facts - merely how those facts are explained.
  • There is no copyright in titles - however, some distinctive titles may be subject to other forms of legal protection, such as a trademark.
  • There is no copyright in ideas or plot. However, the more detail you give an idea or plot, the more specific you make it, the better.
I have literally touched the surface here (and not done the subject justice at all) but if I had gone into all the detail, I would be completely redefining what the length of a blog posting should be! But there are some excellent resources online that can offer further copyright guidance, including:

I hope that's been of some help.

Good luck.