What is Copyright?

Copyright is a body of law concerned with protecting the rights of the author in relation to their work. Copyright protection arises automatically, and is vested in anybody who has given an idea physical form in an original, creative way. Copyright confers numerous rights on the author. The most important of these is the exclusive right to exploitation of the work. In essence, this means that only the author can lawfully use and benefit from the work. Anybody else utilising or benefitting from the work in any way would be in breach of copyright, and subject to the payment of damages to the author.

How Does Copyright Arise?
There are three key concepts to unpack in the above definition: authorship, originality, and physical form (legally known as fixation).

Despite the ordinary meaning of the word, in copyright law, ‘author’ encompasses not only writers of books and poems, but also painters, photographers, film makers, programmers, and much more. If a work required creativity in any way, it is very likely to fall within the categories of works copyright protects, and the creator of that work will therefore be known as an author.

In order to benefit from copyright protection, the work must also be sufficiently original – the author’s creativity must be clearly identifiable within the work. For example, if one were to draw a rectangle on a piece of paper, no copyright protection would be conferred; a rectangle is too common. Nothing in particular would distinguish that rectangle from any other. However, if the rectangle were filled with a simple, colourful pattern, the author’s original contribution to the work would be clear. It would therefore be deemed sufficiently original.

The final requirement for the presence of copyright is fixation. this is a very simple requirement, but a very important one. copyright does not protect ideas; it merely protects the expression of those ideas. returning to the rectangle example, if one were to merely describe their idea for a particular pattern within a rectangle to someone, without actually drawing it, the person they described it to would be free to draw the described rectangle and pattern without any repercussions. it is only once a work crosses the line between idea and reality that it acquires copyright protection.

What Rights Does Copyright Confer on the Author?
Copyright confers a very broad range of rights in relation to a work. There are dozens of individual rights, but they are usually grouped into two main categories: economic rights and moral rights.

Economic rights primarily relate to the unauthorised exploitation of a work. The most well-known economic right is that only the author has the right to sell and profit from a work. If anybody else were to try to do so without permission from the copyright owner, they would need to surrender all of the profit that they made to them. However, a less well-known right is that any unlawful use of a work whatsoever gives the copyright owner the right to seek damages, regardless of lack of profit.

Moral rights are concerned with how the author is projected to the world in relation to their work. For example, it would be unlawful to deface a work, and to then claim that the defaced version is how the work looked like originally. It would also be unlawful to present a work to the world without properly attributing the author, even if the author is no longer the copyright owner, unless they specifically chose to waive that right.

How Long Does Copyright Last?
In the United Kingdom, the duration of copyright in relation to a particular work is defined in legislation by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA 1988). Works are defined by categories, and each has its own term. For example, literary, artistic, and dramatic works (within which the vast majority of copyrightable works fall) have a copyright duration of the lifetime of the author, plus 70 years.