Copyright for Authors in the UK

Recently, our very own Sophie-Louise posted on social media to talk about #WorldCopyrightDay, sharing links to the different websites and organisations that you can look to for advice.

We were so pleased to be able to chat with some of you about the importance of Copyright — something that we believe writers (and all creatives!) should know more about — that we decided to write a blog post about it!

One of you in particular - yes, you, John! - asked us to talk about ‘Copyright for Authors in the UK’ specifically, so we decided to provide some insight and summarise some of the key information relating to this for you all. We hope you find this useful.

Copyright: What is it?

When we talk about Copyright, we’re essentially referring to legal permissions: who has the right to copy, produce, sell, perform, adapt or, in any way, use your writing?

There’s a really helpful overview about this online from the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), who summarise it quite nicely:

Copyright is the legal right granted to you when you create an original work. It’s a form of ‘intellectual property’, which you can sell, license to a publisher or a producer, or leave in your will to your loved ones.

“Copyright law sets out activities relating to your work that require your permission (known as restricted acts) and when your permission is not needed (known as Copyright exceptions).”

Cracking Ideas provides a whole host of information about the differences between Copyright and Intellectual Property, which can be summarised for writers in these two bullet points from their site:

“An idea alone is not intellectual property. For example, an idea for a book doesn’t count, but the words you’ve written do. [...]”

Some types of IP are automatic – like copyright for books, art, films, music etc – and some you have to apply for (like patents and trade marks).

Since we’re looking at Copyright, we’ll take this last point and look at it further — do you have to apply?

The short answer: no.

How do I make sure my writing is covered?

Ensuring your creative work is covered by Copyright is actually much simpler than most people assume.

Did you know that — according to Copyright law in the UK — as soon as you record an idea (and as long as it’s original), it’s technically covered by Copyright? You don’t need to formally register with any legal body, as even an outline for a story is automatically yours from the time its first created. Copyright Hub has a great post that outlines all the types of creative work covered automatically by Copyright law if you’d like to know more.

Those songs I record on my phone when I’m driving? Protected. My Trello board that outlines my science fiction YA novel? Protected. Even an idea noted on a napkin in a restaurant is legally yours from the moment you write in down.

ALCS does point out that, should you want to prove an idea or piece of creative work existed on a certain date, you can “send a copy to a reliable third party, such as a bank or solicitor”. Another, less formal, way to do this is to send yourself a copy in a sealed envelope and leave it sealed. That way, should any doubt arise that your creative idea is original, you can show the post stamp with the date on it and open the envelope as proof.

What permissions do people need to use my writing?

To avoid Copyright infringement, people need to seek your permission before using your written work in any way. Whether they want to re-post it online or adapt it, they need to seek your permission. Most Copyright infringement online happens with images, which are so easy to right-click and ‘save-as’ for someone else’s own use.

The website has an extensive page on Intellectual Property, of which Copyright is a small part. If you scroll down, you’ll find the following about Copyright infringement specifically:

“Copyright is infringed when any of the [usage] acts are done without permission, whether directly or indirectly and whether the whole or a substantial part of a work is used, unless what is done falls within the scope of exceptions to copyright permitting certain minor uses.*

Copyright is essentially a private right so decisions about how to enforce your right, that is what to do when your copyright work is used without your permission, are generally for you to take.

This means that when someone wishes to distribute your written work — whether online on their blog, as a traditional publisher, or otherwise — you have the right to specify what the parameters are. Generally, this would mean establishing a contract between yourself and the interested party.

Whether you’re being paid for your writing or not, this kind of contract can state exactly how the writing will be presented, how long it will be there, and how you will be credited as the author of the work. It might also detail whether you will be paid an advance, remunerated through royalties, or both. At the very least, there should be a written agreement between you and the distributor of your work, for example in an email chain, which can legally be used as evidence of you giving your permission for the work to be used in this way.

As a writer, you can get advice regarding contracts; we’re always happy to talk about contracts here at Wordsmith_HQ (having written one or two in our time!). However, another reputable place to get good advice is the Society of Authors. They work closely with their members to ensure that they are dealt with fairly and are compensated for their creative work. Membership is not free, but it’s worth it.

What should I do if I suspect someone has infringed on my Copyright?

So, you think (or know) that someone has used part or all of your work unlawfully? One of the best resources we’ve found about this and how to approach it comes from Copyright User, who have a whole section of their site dedicated to the idea of enforcing Copyright infringement.

Their initial advice can be boiled down to the following four steps:

  1. Clarify whether the work is protected by Copyright and collate evidence of ownership;

  2. Establish who (company or individual) is responsible for the infringement;

  3. If the person or company responsible for the infringement is someone with whom you’ve had a limited agreement previously, find a copy of that original agreement;

  4. Decide on what you would like the outcome to be when you enforce your rights, e.g. do you want the use to cease? Do you want to establish an appropriate licensing fee?

After you’ve done the above, you can enforce your rights through a number of avenues — check out their website or consult a legal adviser (again, the Society of Authors is a good contact for help with how to go about this!) should you want more information on taking your rights further..

Where else can I find more information?

I used a range of sources for this article, but there’s plenty out there about Copyright!

To name a few:

*according to ALCS, minor uses that are permitted include “work for non-commercial research or private study, illustration for teaching, criticism or review, and news reporting, quotation and parody [...] Libraries and educational establishments also benefit from copyright exceptions, but in some cases, authors are entitled to receive royalties from [ALCS] and Public Lending Rights (PLR).”

This article was written by Emily Suzanne Young on behalf of Wordsmith_HQ.