How to avoid copyright infringement

Understanding the basics of copyright is vital to many businesses - especially those in the media, arts and entertainment industries. Knowing how to avoid copyright infringement is as important as understanding how to protect copyright.

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What are the main types of copyright?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property right (IPR) which relates to tangible creative works such musical compositions, literary or artistic works (including novels, computer software, paintings and photographs), databases and maps or technical drawings. Some of the main examples of copyright material include:

  • literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works
  • sound recordings
  • films
  • typographical arrangements of published editions
  • broadcasts (including those on cable and satellite)
  • databases
  • computer programs, apps and websites

Copyright applies automatically in the UK; there is no requirement to register it. However, in order to establish copyright in case of a future legal dispute, it can be marked with the international copyright symbol © followed by the name of the copyright owner and year of publication.

It should be noted that copyright does not include ideas (which can be protected under a Patent), names, slogans or phrases (which are protected under trade mark law).

For further information read Copyright.

What counts as copyright infringement?

Under the law, infringement of copyright includes the following actions by a third party (ie an individual or business who does not own the copyright and has not been given permission to use it):

  • copying the copyrighted work
  • renting, lending or issuing copies of the work to the public
  • performing a work (eg a theatrical performance) or showing it (eg an artistic work) in public
  • making an adaptation of the work

What are the defences/exceptions to copyright infringement claims?

The main exceptions to copyright infringement are as follows:

  • fair dealing (eg if the use is for criticism, non-commercial research or private study, caricature or parody)
  • educational (eg if a protected work is used for the purposes of non-commercial instruction and examination)
  • disability (eg if the work is copied for the purpose of making copies accessible to visually impaired persons)
  • libraries, archives and public administration (eg non-profit making libraries can make copies for inclusion in archives, and there is an exception for public administrative functions where the courts needs to make copies of material for a legal case)
  • incidental inclusion (eg if the work is included incidentally in an artistic work)
  • minor infringement (copyright is only infringed if a whole or a 'substantial part' has been copied)
  • temporary copies

How can copyright infringement be avoided?

Unless the use of copyright work falls underneath one of the exceptions (above), it is vital that businesses seeking to make use of any copyright material do one of the following:

  • obtain permission from a Collective Management Organisation (CMO) - such as PPL/PRS for music or the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) for printed material (for a full list of Licensing bodies and collective management organisations see Gov.uk)
  • gain permission from the copyright owner or their agent which may require payment of licencing fees
  • where copyright work has been produced as part of a contractual agreement, consider using an Assignment of intellectual property document
  • on websites, check any copyright/licencing terms (eg sometimes permission will be given to reproduce content, as with the Open Government Licence)

If you are unsure about copyright, Ask a lawyer for advice on your specific situation.

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