What are Computer-generated works?

Who is the author of a computer-generated work?

Although the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 specifically recognises that work produced by a computer, or with the assistance of one, can be afforded copyright protection, this area of law is fraught with difficulty and uncertainty.  Chief among these is the authorship of the work created.  Generally, for copyright to subsist in a work there must be a human author.  On the face of it this means that a computer, being non-human, cannot be the author of a work.  Somewhat confusingly, however, s178 of the Act states that a computer-generated work is one generated in circumstances when there is no human author of the work, bringing us back to the question of who, then, is the author.  Already, problems can be seen in this approach, particularly regarding the position when a computer generates a work that is clearly worthy of copyright protection, but has had little human input in its creation.  An early case (Express Newspapers plc v Liverpool Daily Post & Echo plc [1985], decided under the previous legislation but still applicable today) held that human expertise in computer-generated works lay in the programs, or software, which produced the end result.

Human skill can also be found in the person who enters information into a program in order to achieve a specific result.  Under s9(3) of the Act, which concerns literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work that has been computer-generated, the author is the person who made the necessary arrangements to create the work, such as the program author.

Clearly, a consistent and logical approach is required so that the law in this area is unambiguous and has the desired effect.  To make some headway, it is useful to classify computer-generated work into three categories, namely

  1. Works created using a computer

  2. Works created by a computer

  3. Intermediate works

Works created using a computer

These are probably the easiest works to define.  Works in this category include documents written using a word processor, architectural plans created using computer aided design (CAD), and accounts done on a spreadsheet.  Here, the respective computer program is merely a tool used to assist in producing the final result, in the same way that a pen is a tool used when writing a letter.  As the pen cannot be said to be the author of the letter, neither can the computer program, in these instances, be said to be the author of the finished product, be it a document, a plan or an accounts report.  Consequently, these works are not computer-generated, and it is the person who uses the computer to create the works who is recognised as the author.  It is worth pointing out here that the author can create the work directly or indirectly.  A person may draft a report in longhand on paper then hand it to a secretary who subsequently types it up on a computer.  Here, the secretary is not the author of the work but merely an agent acting on behalf of the true author. 

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For more information on:

  • Works created by a computer
  • Intermediate works