The European Parliament has recently voted through changes to current copyright law. The European Union Directive on Copyright in the Single Digital Market will force social media platforms, such as facebook, twitter and YouTube to be more responsible when copyrighted material is illegally shared via those sites. 

Currently they are not responsible, although they should remove any copyrighted material at the earliest opportunity when they become aware of it.

Clearly organisations who represent creative people, such as the Society of Authors see this as a victory (especially as there are clauses concerning fair remuneration for creatives). So this tighter control over rights and better enforcement could offer a chance to create more income for cash-strapped writers and other creatives.

Of course, it’s not that simple, because although the directive has been passed by the European Union, it is now down to member states to ratify it in their own parliaments. And there’s also comment that some of the directive is open to interpretation, so one country could interpret aspects of the directive in a completely different way to another country!

I thought this would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves about the basics of copyright.

1. What is copyright?

Copyright is a legal right that exists as soon as we create something – such as expressing an idea in writing, or taking a photograph. There is no copyright in ideas until they are expressed in a permanent form.

2. What does copyright do?

It protects creators by enabling them to license their work. Typically, it’s the copyright holder who can give authority to someone else to use their creation … usually in return for a fee. So article writers grant magazines the right to print their work in a magazine. Authors give publishers the right to use their work in book format, in return for some money – usually as an advance or in the form of royalties (or, hopefully, both!).

The copyright holder can exploit as many different rights as they like: write a book and the rights to exploit in it include paperback, hardback, ebook, large print, audio, TV and film rights, and possibly even serialisation rights in a newspaper or magazine. So copyright enables a writer to monetise their creativity.

Therefore, if you transfer copyright of your work to someone else you have no control, or authority, over that piece of work. You can’t even use it yourself again … unless you obtain the current copyright holder’s permission to use your own work.

3. All Rights is not the same, is it?

Some companies ask for all rights in a piece of work, and then say that the author retains copyright. That’s a bit of a misnomer, because if you’ve granted all possible rights in a piece of work to someone else, there aren’t any other rights left. You have no rights left to license to anyone else.

Take the author who has licensed a publisher to print their novel in paperback format. If the author is still the copyright holder and they’ve only granted paperback rights to the publisher then the author still has the right to exploit radio rights, audio rights, tv rights etc. But if the author had transferred all rights then they have nothing left to exploit.

So if you see requests for All Rights, then think of it as the same as transferring copyright.

4. Do I need to register copyright?

No. Not in the UK. Copyright exists the moment you express an idea in some sort of permanent form, such as writing it down – and that’s the same for all 177 countries/parties who signed up to the Berne Convention. 

Historically, writers posted a copy of their work to themselves, but did not open it when it was delivered. That way, if ever a problem occurred and the case went to court, the envelope would be produced (with the stamp franked with a date mark) and then opened, proving that the work existed on that date. But cases like these are rare.

5. Am I protected abroad?

It was the Berne Convention of 1886 that established the formal framework for copyright. Therefore, your work is protected in any country that has signed up to the Berne Convention, to the same level of protection that exists for creators in that particular country. More and more countries are standardising copyright, to fall in line with everyone else.

The USA has an additional copyright registration service. Works need to be registered here, before an infringement lawsuit can be filed. (Registering can, therefore, affect the size of damages you might receive, should you be successful.) 

6. I was sent a letter. Do I own the copyright in that letter?

No. It is the writer/creator of the letter who owns the copyright of the contents, but as the recipient you own the physical letter. So you don’t have the right to license any use of the contents of that letter – only the letter writer can do that!

Similarly, if you stop a stranger in the street and ask them to take your photo, technically, they created the photo (even if they were using your camera) so they are the copyright holder.

7. How long does copyright last?

In most cases, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator. So if an author were to die this year, in 2019, the copyright in their work would remain until 2090 (70 years after the year of death). Once a piece of work is out of copyright you do not need permission to use the text, although it’s still worth checking there are no other rights that may be violated. 

It’ll be interesting to see how this new copyright directive influences the social media channels. There’s a lot of dust to settle yet still, and the European countries have yet to ratify the agreement in their own parliaments. (And, yes, the UK should ratify it, because we’re still a member of the EU.)

And if you’ve ever wondered whether you should include your copyright in your last will and testament (YES!), then please download an article I wrote on this topic in 2016 here.

Good luck.

European Copyright
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