Copyright – The basics

What is copyright?

Copyright is protection for original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works, sound recordings, films, broadcasts or cable programmes, and the typographical arrangement of published editions as given in Section 1 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.  

What protection does copyright grant?

Copyright does not protect ideas as such, but instead protects the expression of those ideas. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 does not refer to this principle but the principle has been held up in case law for a very long time. The split between the idea and its expression is known as the idea/expression dichotomy.

Literary works

A literary work covers any work of literature, i.e. it covers any written words. This includes books, computer code, minutes from a meeting, newspaper articles etcetera. Derivative works and adaptations are also covered meaning that if, for example, a book is adapted to issue a chapter a week in a magazine, it is still covered by copyright. An adaptation would also include taking the characters from one fictional work and applying them to another without permission. The information stored in a database may also be covered.

Dramatic Works

A dramatic work would include films, plays, dance and mimes. There is one proviso in case law that it must be a work of action (see case Creation Records [1997]) meaning there must be some movement.

Musical Works 

The music is itself is covered. This means the sound that you hear is covered. The lyrics are also covered by copyright but they would usually fall under the literary work section as opposed to the musical works section.

What are the requirements for gaining copyright protection? 

The work must originate from the author. Whilst this may seem fairly straight forward and obvious it may require some clarification. The meaning behind ‘originating with the author’ is that the author has not merely compiled small pieces of other peoples work into his own new work and claimed copyright. The new work itself must have originated with the author. This does not require the work to be the expression of an original idea, but merely the way that the idea is expressed must be original. This is basically a test of originality.

This test for originality can be elaborated upon slightly. It is a requirement of copyright law that copyright will exist where sufficient skill, judgement and labour have gone into the creation of a work. Detriment could possibly mean financial outgoings, labour could mean some work has gone into it and some skill could merely mean not everything was due to luck. This leaves the originality test in copyright as a very low level to achieve. 

In order to gain copyright protection the work must be in some form of fixed form. A speech given will gain protection if it is recorded, for example. Or a poem will become a literary work only once it has been written down; it gains no protection whilst it is merely in the author mind.

It should be noted that the quality of the work has no bearing on the ability to gain copyright protection for it.

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For more information on:

  • How long does copyright last?
  • Literary, Musical, Dramatic, Artistic works
  • Films 
  • Sound recordings 
  • Broadcasts 
  • Who owns the copyright? 
  • Literary, Musical, Dramatic, Artistic works 
  • Films
  • Sound recordings
  • Broadcasts