Copyright basics for writers

What copyright is – and why it’s important to you

Copyright is the legal right granted to you when you create an original work. It’s a form of ‘intellectual property’, which you can sell, license to a publisher or a producer, or leave in your will to your loved ones.

Copyright law sets out activities relating to your work that require your permission (known as restricted acts) and when your permission is not needed (known as copyright exceptions).

By assigning your copyright or licensing others, such as publishers or broadcasters, to exercise your rights, you secure income through royalties. These are your primary rights.

Our aim is to see you receive fees for copying and reuse by third parties, such as educational establishments, businesses and public bodies, overseas public lending rights and international broadcast retransmission. These are your secondary rights.

What rights do copyright holders have?

Copyright owners have exclusive rights in their work. These include the rights:
• to copy a work
• to issue copies of the work to the public (including rental or lending)
• to perform, show or play the work in public
• to broadcast the work or make it available online
• to adapt the work or do any of the above in relation to the adaptation.

Anyone who does any of these without permission or in situations not covered by statutory exceptions is infringing copyright and breaking the law.

How do I register copyright?

As soon as you record an idea, for example by writing down the outline of a story, it’s protected by copyright. As long as the work is original, copyright protection is automatic. Copyright ensures works cannot be reproduced or used without your permission. This means you can profit from your creation.

There is no formal system in the UK for registering copyright. Most commonly you would use the copyright symbol ©, followed by your name and the year the work was first published. To show a written work existed by a set date, send a copy to a reliable third party, such as a bank or solicitor.

In the US, registering your work with the copyright office gives you certain benefits in the case of infringement proceedings.

Are there any exceptions to copyright?

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 provides certain exceptions to copyright. ‘Fair Dealing’, for example, applies to copying a work for non-commercial research or private study, illustration for teaching, criticism or review, and news reporting, quotation and parody.

Libraries and educational establishments also benefit from copyright exceptions, but in some cases, authors are entitled to receive royalties from us and Public Lending Rights (PLR).

How does copyright work if you’re employed?

The work usually belongs to your employer, unless your contract states otherwise.

What happens if my work is used outside the UK?

The UK is signed up to a number of international treaties that seek to protect the copyright of works when used overseas. These include: the 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty, the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty, the Berne Convention, the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC), the Rome Convention for Performers, Phonogram Producers and Broadcasters, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) TRIPS Agreement.

A fundamental principle of international copyright law is that all works should have equal protection in each territory, regardless of the nationality of the creator. This means your work can be protected all over the world. It also means we’re able to negotiate bilateral agreements with overseas collecting societies to collect and distribute money to you when your work is used internationally.

What are moral rights?

Moral rights protect the bond between you and your work. They include the right for you to be associated with your work and prevent others from altering your work significantly. Examples include:

  • The Paternity (Attribution) Right
    The right of a creator to be identified as the author of a work. This right has to be ‘asserted’ in writing – for example, included in your contract.
  • The Integrity Right
    The right to object to any unauthorised distortion or changes to your work that may prejudice your honour or reputation.

Useful websites 

UK Intellectual Property Office – gov.uk/government/organisations/intellectual-property-office

The Copyright Hub  – copyrighthub.co.uk/

Get It Right from a Genuine Site  – getitrightfromagenuinesite.org

Cracking Ideas – crackingideas.com/