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Ownership and copyright issues online

When considering hard copy print, it appears copyright is well established and clear, but online copyright is a bit more muddled.


Copyright is an intellectual property right which provides right holders with a range of rights in respect of their works including a right to royalties and to restrict how their works are reproduced by other people.

Copyright ownership

The creator of the work is generally the first copyright owner. Where there are two or more authors who have created a work, they may have joint ownership of the copyright if their contributions are indivisible or co-authorship where separate contributions can be identified.

Where works are procured or created in the course of employment, the commissioner or the employer is usually the first copyright owner. However, this will depend upon the terms of the contract, and whether the work falls within the scope of the work procured or created during the course of employment.

Copyright protection

Work which benefits from copyright protection includes:

  • Original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works;
  • Computer programs and software code;
  • Databases (in addition to the separate database right);
  • Sound recordings, films or broadcasts; and
  • Typographical arrangements of published editions.

To qualify for copyright protection, work requires to be 'original' in the sense that the work exhibits the author's own intellectual creation.

Duration of copyright protection

The duration of copyright protection depends on the nature of the protected work itself.

Generally, in literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works, copyright lasts for the lifetime of the owner plus 70 years after their death (or 50 years if the work was computer generated).

Copyright in audio-visual works follow slightly different rules. Broadcasts are protected for 50 years from the date the broadcast is made. Sound recordings are protected for 50 years after the end of year of publication. Films are protected for 70 years following the death of the last of the following persons: the principal director; the author of the screenplay; the author of the dialogue or the composer of the original music commissioned for or used in the film.

Copyright in typographical arrangements has the shortest duration, lasting for 25 years from the end of the year in which the edition was first published.

Online copying

The copying of online content across the web is widespread and a longstanding complaint. The frequency of copying is reasoned, in large part due to the ease with which content can be taken, along with a widespread misconception, that copyright does not apply to online works.

Infringement prevention support

As copyright arises automatically, it is advisable to keep records and evidence of any materials or works created, which may be needed to establish the subsistence and ownership of copyright in infringement proceedings.

It is further helpful to mark copyright material when it is published, with the copyright symbol © followed by the name of the copyright owner and year of publication (e.g. © [OWNER] [YEAR]). While this notice is not an absolute requirement in the UK, it may assist in the event of infringement proceedings, along with hopefully being useful to deter many would-be copiers.

It is also recommended to include well drafted intellectual property clauses within your terms and conditions. The clauses should outline what users can do with the content and when they will require further permission. The terms and conditions should also include what licences, if any, are granted for use of the content.

If you benefit from a unique business name or logo you may also wish to apply for trademark registration. This is recommended if you wish to claim proprietary rights in your business name or logo as, unlike copyright, trademarks do not arise automatically.

Our specialist intellectual property solicitors’ extensive technical expertise and experience covers every aspect of software, e-commerce and intellectual property, including drafting bespoke contracts, acting on corporate transactions in the sector, and pursuing and defending claims.