In this article, we take a broad look at copyright and how it may apply to your business online, plus what exceptions there may be to the law.
Firstly, it is important to make clear that this article does not offer any definitive legal advice but merely takes a broad look at the subject of copyright. Those seeking accurate advice about their own copyright issues should, of course, consult with a qualified legal professional.
Copyright Law and Software
Many businesses produce digital materials such as software or designs that are published online by themselves, for specific clients or for usage by third parties e.g., templates and photos. In this article, we take a look at some of the main laws governing this digital material and what implications these laws can have for the producers and users of this material.
So much digital (and non-digital) work is continuously created that there is no copyright register for the online world, as such, in the UK. Instead, the law simply states that a person automatically gets copyright protection when they create something e.g., original literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic work, (including illustration and photography). This automatic ownership also applies to creating original non-literary written work, such as software, web content and databases.
If you have copyright protection in the UK, it should mean that nobody else can copy, distribute (paid or free), rent, or lend copies of your work, make an adaptation of your work, or put your work on the Internet.
At Work or At Home?
There have been cases, however, such as the one highlighted on the Mills & Reeve legal website, whereby a person who was employed to write software for his job, as stipulated in his employment contract(s), wrote some software out of hours, out of the office, for which he claimed copyright. The court’s decision was that since he was employed to write software, it didn’t matter whether he wrote it in his own time on his own devices, his company still owned the copyright. This is because:
- In UK law, if an employee creates an original work as part of their employment (they’re employed to do that job), the copyright is owned by their employer.
- An accurate employment contact, stating clearly what the employee’s work is for the company, e.g., writing software, makes it much easier for ownership (by the company) to be established.
Social Media Sharing and Copyright Infringement
The advent of social media, however, where work is routinely shared globally makes the matter of copyright seem a little more complicated because permission to post is rarely sought. For this reason, the concept of ‘fair use’ and the social media company’s licensing terms that users sign up to when joining the platform can also apply when deciding matters of copyright. An example of Twitter’s copyright policy, for example, can be seen here. https://help.twitter.com/en/rules-and-policies/copyright-policy
Broadly speaking, the idea of ‘fair use’ (US) / fair dealing (UK) on social media means that copyrighted material can be shared/reproduced if one of a group of certain conditions are met. These conditions are that:
- If its sharing/usage is for research or private study purposes.
- If the copyrighted work is being used/shared for review or being quoted.
- If the copyrighted work is being used to report current events.
It is worth noting, however, that fair use/fair dealing doesn’t give a carte blanche to the sharing/reproducing on social media, and that each case could be considered legally on its own merits.
Protecting Your Own Copyrighted Material on Social Media
Although using a social media channel essentially gives the platform’s owner permission to use your content, there are some steps you can take to indicate that your work is under copyright. For example, this could mean adding a copyright notice to posts or a watermark to images.
What If Your Copyrighted Work Is Shared Without Your Permission?
If your copyrighted work is shared without your permission (possible infringement of copyright) on social media, you can (firstly) contact the person who shared it. If this is not possible (or there in no response/an unsatisfactory response) submit a report to the social media platform via their copyright form. Facebook’s, for example, can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/help/contact/1758255661104383?helpref=faq_content
Many companies use and share images and the best advice is that images should be purchased or downloaded from reputable websites where it is made very clear, and where you understand what kind of licence you have and in what way you can legally use the image.
Many businesses use ‘royalty free’ images. This means that the images have a special license so that the user can pay for the image license once but then continue to use the image in perpetuity without having to keep buying or renewing a new license.
If you need to check whether an image is copyrighted, a reverse search in Google images or other platforms such as Tineye (a reverse image search engine) can give a good indication.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
Copyright and intellectual property are legal areas that businesses need at least a basic understanding of to avoid the painful consequences of infringement or being infringed. The safest route is, of course, to always seek permission and/or always check the copyright policies of the services/platforms that you sign up to and use where copyright could be an issue. Although the UK law is clear, there are of course exceptions (fair dealing) and it is always worth remembering that despite these exceptions, in the event of an infringement complaint, the individual circumstances are likely to be considered. Accurate employment contacts can also be a way to help protect your own copyright matters e.g., for software writing.
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