As a freelance writer, ideas are your bread and butter. Getting a commission means revealing your idea for a great article to an editor or someone else. There’s no way around it, but how can you prevent people from ripping you off? Here’s what you need to know about UK copyright law.
In the UK, copyright is an automatic and unregistered right. That means there’s no need to apply specially or fill in any forms. Copyright takes effect as soon as certain works (this term applies to all copyright protected material) are created and there are nine types of work that enjoy this automatic protection. These are literary work (including newspaper articles), dramatic, musical, artistic (photos, drawings, diagrams, maps etc), sound recordings, films, broadcasts, cable programmes and published editions of works. All of these are known as intellectual property. Intellectual property is a bit like real estate – it can be bought, sold, transferred and inherited, though only with your written permission.
The key thing to remember as a writer is that ideas themselves are not protected but the way ideas are expressed is protected. So if you think of an idea for an article, that isn’t protected; when you write it, it is. It’s the information you select and the way you arrange that information that makes it unique.
In order for material to have copyright protection it has to result from independent intellectual effort. In other words, you must have put some work into it. You’ll need to be able to prove this if challenged, so although it’s not obligatory, you can protect yourself by sending a copy of your work to yourself by recorded delivery and leaving it unopened. Recorded delivery post is date stamped so you’ll be able to prove that your work existed on a particular date.
Copyright lasts for the duration of the author’s life plus 70 years for literary, dramatic or musical works. Different periods apply for films (70 years after the last to die of the director, screenplay authors and musical director), sound recordings (50 years) and published editions (25 years). People are allowed to publish excerpts from your copyrighted work for the purpose of news, review or criticism. This is known as fair dealing. Works used in this way should be properly acknowledged.
When you give someone the right to publish your work, you are assigning that right temporarily (a bit like renting out your house). As a writer, you’ll want to avoid signing away any of your rights permanently. Instead, be clear on what rights you are assigning. First serial rights are normal. This gives the publisher the right to publish your material first in whatever country or region (for example, the UK or US) the rights apply to. Once the material has been published, all rights revert to you. Some publishers will also request online rights and the right to keep your work in an online archive. You’ll want to make sure these rights are for a limited period or are non-exclusive, so you can make the most of your material.
A key term to be aware of is moral right. This is the right to be credited as the author (have a byline) and to object to alterations or errors which might damage your reputation (known as derogatory treatment of your work). It also includes the right not to have work falsely attributed to you. In other words, no one should say you wrote something if you didn’t.
So what do you do if someone tries to pass off something you’ve written as their own work? If your copyright has been breached you can take the infringer to court but beware. There are two things that could damage your case. The first is if the person commits innocent infringement, which means the person genuinely didn’t know you owned the copyright; the second is if you have previously allowed someone to use copyrighted work without complaint. This is known as acquiescence.