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Legal & Financial


Last updated: 04 April 2022


If you create, or your business employs someone to create, booklets, computer programmes, sound recordings, films, drawings, names etc. you will automatically hold the copyright on them. Copyright simply gives people an automatic right to protect their creative work and control its reproduction. You don’t have to register copyright and the procedures and laws are exactly the same on the internet.

But the internet poses particular problems. The success of Facebook, with a staggering 42 million users since its worldwide launch in 2006; You Tube, which claims 100 million page views a day; and the plethora of networking sites means that consumers assume they use the internet in their own ways and expect to download information for free. Enforcement is a problem. Music companies lose millions of pounds from illegal downloading and businesses are constantly ripped off.

Although literature, art, music, sound recordings, films and broadcasts are covered, names, titles or slogans cannot be copyrighted – these are classed as trademarks and are protected by a different process. Ideas and inventions are not protected under copyright – see separate article on patents.


How can I protect my copyright?

The problem with copyright is that all the copyist has to do to get away with it is to avoid copying a substantial part of your work. Because the near-copy will itself be original it will itself have copyright! Protection is therefore limited, but there are ways of at least showing would-be copyists that you are aware of your rights.

Copyright material is marked by displaying a © symbol next to or near the appropriate material. Also put your name and date on.

Although displaying the symbol is not a legal requirement it may support a legal case in the event of copyright infringement. If you want to be extra careful you can sign and date every drawing or draft, including back-of-envelope sketches, and keep them safely. You can establish the truth of the date you claim by sealing the papers in an envelope and posting it to your bank or solicitor to keep unopened. The postmark is your proof, but make sure the envelope is not opened by mistake! In addition you could send a copy of the work to yourself via recorded delivery and leave unopened on receiving: the package would display a stamped date. That way, if you did end up in court, the infringing party would not be able to be able to prove that they created the work at an earlier date.

But do not attempt to prove the originality of your work by using a method where the date can be easily fixed or tampered with. For example, saving work onto computer discs can produce wrong date signatures if the computer’s calendar is inaccurate.


How long does copyright last?

Copyright lasts for the duration of the author’s life, plus an additional 70 years after death. For sound recordings and broadcasts it only lasts for an additional 50 years after the death of the author. Copyright for they typographical arrangement of publications lasts for 25 years. If the copyright work is the basis of an industrial design protection runs for 15 years from the first time the product is put on sale.

If you have files, research or development work that doesn’t yet qualify for copyright you could consider registering them on an unofficial copyright register such as the file-reg international website. This could show your connection with the particular copyright material as you develop it.


Who holds the copyright in my business?

Your business holds copyright for work produced by your employees, but if you have used a contractor it is important to remember that they hold copyright on any work they create for your business unless you agree otherwise.

Sometimes individuals create a piece of work and give the copyright to the company they produced the work for. For example a company might pay a graphic designer to create a logo. The graphic designer is still the rightful owner of the copyright, even when he or she hands over the finished logo. However, it is common practice for ownership of copyright to be given with the completed logo.

If you use contractors on a regular basis you should consider including copyright surrender as one of the standard terms in your contract. And you should always make the copyright situation clearing in writing. In particular this applies to people who design your web pages, write or design promotional material, write software for your business or take photographs of your business. If you want to own the copyright of original works that a contractor creates for you make sure you seek legal advice.


What are my rights?

Not only do you have economic control of your copyright, but also moral rights. This means you can object to distortions of your work and also have the right to be identified as the author of your work. But authors of computer programmes or material used in newspapers, magazines or in reference works can’t claim moral right on their copyright work.

If your copyright has been infringed you have a right to take legal action. However, copyright cases are often hard to judge and very expensive (especially if you lose). Before you go to court, try to get a personal agreement with the infringing party – for example tell them to remove the material or charge them a fee (royalties) for using it. Copyright is a large and complex area with a lot of legislation so consult the experts beforehand.

You can, as with any other type of intellectual property, sell your copyright, or even lease it. Copyright can also be inherited. If you do allow another party to reproduce your work for a fee (or even for free), you need to create an agreement stating terms and conditions for use. Again, professional advice is needed. Remember that although copyright in the UK extends to most other countries which are ruled by the same international associate, including Europe, USA and Russia, there may be some differences. Some countries insist you mark your work with the international copyright symbol and some don’t respect copyright.

More copyright infringements to occur on the internet than any other medium, simply because it is accessed by millions of people worldwide. It is possible to reduce online copyright violations. By using specific java script (inserted into the HTML) you can disable the ‘right click’ function on your pages thus preventing users accessing the ‘copy’ option from the menu.

Conversely if you want to reproduce material that is not yours you must get the permission of the copyright owner and the same rules mentioned earlier apply. There are a few exceptions where permission is not required, such as research and private study purposes, reviewing and reporting or using as teaching material, but if large amount of copying is required or numerous copies, permission is necessary. ‘Crown copyright’ material can usually be reproduced freely as long as it is reproduced accurately and not in a misleading fashion. This includes material from ministers and civil servants.

Copyright protection should make it easier for you to protect your work and control its reproduction, but it is not necessary a strong protection. At least there is some protection in law, but it is easy to violate.


Useful websites:
Register your documentation online at the file-reg international website:

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