This short article explains the key points of copyright law - those which should be familiar to every website operator. Website operators need to know about copyright law because copyright materials are their stock-in-trade, and because dealing in copyright materials gives rise to legal risks.
Complaints of copyright infringement involving websites are relatively common; and infringement lawsuits can be ruinous. It therefore pays to be careful. Whatever one may think of the law of copyright, ignorance isn't going to impress a judge.
The article is written from the point of view of English law. However, there is a measure of international harmonization of copyright law, and most of the points made can be validly made in relation to the copyright law of most other jurisdictions.
(1) Copyright v other IP rights
Copyright must be properly distinguished from other kinds of intellectual property (IP) right: patents, trade marks, rights in designs, database rights, and so on. Nothing, but nothing, pains the IP expert more than many journalists' apparent belief that the different kinds of IP right are interchangeable.
(2) Copyright protects "works"
Copyright law protects a diversity of "copyright works". It protects the oil painting, operatic symphony and poetic epic with the same principles and rules as the doodle, the advertising ditty, and the slap-dash legal article.
Although "websites" are not a kind of copyright work, their constituent elements are likely to be protected by copyright. Website text and code may be protected as literary works; photographs and other website artworks may be protected as artistic works; website music tracks may be protected both as musical works and through sound recording copyright. A single video clip can accommodate a profusion of different rights.
Simply cataloguing the different copyrights subsisting in a website can be a major undertaking.
(3) The de minimis principle
Copyright isn't concerned with very little things. It does not protect so-called de minimis works, the classic examples of which are titles (such as The Da Vinci Code) and newspaper headlines (such as Small earthquake in Chile, not many killed); nor does copyright prevent "insubstantial copying" from a work which is protected by copyright.
Unfortunately it is often difficult to decide whether a work is really de minimis, or an example of copying insubstantial. Hence the practice, prevalent in some of our cultural industries, of demanding express permission for the least act of copying.
(This is not to say that it's always OK to borrow others' titles etc. Titles may, for example, be protected under the law of trade marks or passing off.)
(4) Ideas and expressions
It is sometimes said that there is no copyright in an idea. This is not entirely accurate, and is more than a little misleading. Although there is no copyright in an idea as such - i.e. an idea which has not been fixed in the form of a copyright work - that is not to say that copyright does not protect the ideas which inhere in copyright works: it does, providing the ideas are of the right kind and are not too general. For example, copyright in a story could be infringed by a person copying the plot of that story, notwithstanding that the copyist takes care to avoid lifting a single phrase from the original story. Note that the ideas underlying a web design,
no matter how specific, are probably of the wrong sort to attract the protection of the law of copyright.
(5) To credit or not to credit?
Do you have a right to be identified as the author on copies of your work? Not necessarily.
This right, the right of paternity, is one of the principal moral rights which arise in relation to copyright works. Moral rights are conceptually distinct from copyright itself. In English law (unusually) the paternity right only applies where it has been asserted by the author. So, if you licence others to use your artwork, but don't assert the right of paternity, they may use it without crediting you!
Some of the statutory defences to a claim of copyright infringement, including the defences of "fair dealing for the purposes of research and private study" and "fair dealing for the purposes of criticism and review", usually only apply where an author has been credited in an appropriate way.
(6) Copyright registration services
Try Googling "copyright registration". You'll find a plethora of different UK companies offering to help protect your works. All you have to do is submit your magnum opus and pay their fees; all they have to do is not lose your submission. Nice work.
The alleged purpose of these services is to provide evidence in the event of a court case. However, the only conceivable evidence such a company could offer is that a work was created before the time of submission. Time of creation is only occasionally an issue in copyright infringement lawsuits. We aren't aware of a single copyright case which has even involved the evidence of such a company, let alone turned upon such evidence. So, don't waste your money.
Note that the position regarding US copyright law is different. Registration with the US Copyright Office, although not necessary, has a number of advantages. See www.copyright.gov for details.
(7) The importance of ©
The Copyright symbol matters little nowadays: in most jurisdictions copyright subsists in qualifying works, irrespective of what symbols they wear. The use of the symbol can be a pre-condition to copyright protection under the Universal Copyright Convention in countries which are not signed up to the Berne Convention - but all the major jurisdictions are now signed up to the Berne Convention.
The use of the symbol does however have the effect of reminding people about copyright protection. If accompanied by the name of the copyright owner, it lets users know who owns the copyright - and from whom a licence should be taken. It also looks rather neat and professional.
(8) When must a licence be written?
In English law, permissions to use copyright works (also known as licences) do NOT need to be in writing. For instance, when you make a website available to the world, you grant an implied licence to internet users to copy that website for the purpose of viewing it on a web browser. However, the exact scope of implied and unwritten licences may be unclear.
There is one exception to the above rule: statutory "exclusive" licences must be in writing signed by or on behalf of the copyright owner, as must assignments (transfers) of copyright ownership.
(9) Acts of infringement
Copyright infringement isn't just about copying. There are lots of different ways to infringe someone's copyright, and many of them don't directly involve copying. For instance, selling over your website CDs that someone else ripped may be copyright infringement. Again, making an adaptation of a copyright work, for instance recreating a motion picture as a cartoon strip, can infringe copyright, even if there is no literal copying.
(10) Copyright crimes
Contrary to the impression given by certain content industry propaganda, copyright infringement isn't usually a criminal offence. Broadly speaking, in the UK, copyright infringement is only a crime if it is done deliberately in the course of a business or on a significant scale. So, downloading an infringing track for personal use may be copyright infringement, but it isn't usually a crime.
This is a revised version of an article was originally published on www.website-law.co.uk in November 2006.