How to avoid copyright infringement

UK copyright law remains a misunderstood legislation for many businesses. The last thing you want is to inadvertently commit an infringement of copyright, resulting in costly legal action.

This article will provide you with a best practice framework to allow your business to operate within the parameters of the UK’s Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988: the principal legislation protecting intellectual property rights throughout the United Kingdom and the work to which it applies.

Copyright is an automatic intellectual property right, protecting everything from writing and literary works, art and photography through to films, television broadcasts, music, digital content and audio recordings.

A copyright owner is given moral and economic rights to their work. The moral rights are centred around the owner’s right to be identified as the author of the work. However, these are separate from the economic rights which incorporate the right to copy, distribute, adapt or broadcast the work.

This copyright lasts for the rest of the author’s life, plus another 70 years. For more information on UK copyright law specifically click here.

Basic examples of UK copyright infringement

Copyright breaches can occur easily without you even knowing it. Here are a few examples to put it into context:

  • A business which produces a monthly newsletter and fails to attribute the copyright of images within the publication to the owner – or seek their permission
  • A presentation or speech incorporates copyright video footage without acknowledgement
  • Music is played on a website without the necessary permission and/or licences
  • One company duplicates another company’s policies or terms and conditions – regardless of whether their intentions were harmless
  • Any website which adapts third party material without permission from the copyright owner

In order for the law to rule in favour of the copyright owner, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (Chapter II, Section 16) states there has to be evidence that a “substantial part” of the work concerned was used for an infringement to have occurred.

However, it’s entirely objective as to just how substantial the part of work that is reproduced. In fact, the significance and value of the extract used is equally as important as the quantity.

How to steer clear of copyright infringement penalties

It’s possible that your use of copyright material may be acceptable under the terms of fair dealing. In the UK, fair dealing covers six primary uses of copyright material: for private study and exploration; for the purpose of examination or instruction; for quotation, critique or review; for the reporting of current news events; for the purpose of parody, caricature or pastiche; and for text and data mining.

The Copyright Licensing Agency Limited (CLA) is the licensing body as defined by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. The CLA recommends the following simple steps to ensure copyright compliance in the UK:

  • Acquire absolute permission to copy protected material by purchasing the relevant CLA licence. This would meet the demands of those that need to use copyright material on a daily basis and for copying extracts. If you are unable to obtain a CLA licence – or statutory authority – you must write directly to the copyright owner for clearance every time you need to copy a proportion of a work, and pay any related fees.

  • Check and comply with specific terms of use relating to direct subscriptions or purchased documents supplied directly, including online formats.

  • For content that’s been published online, keep an eye out for the copyright icon titled ‘What can I do with this content?’. This helps publishers better communicate their copyright terms to commercial and public sector users, as will any other copyright notices on-site if the copyright icon is not visible.

  • Create an internal policy which summarises best practice and shows all employees how to utilise copyright protected materials; greatly reducing the risk of infringement.

What are the potential costs of copyright infringement?

The CLA lists the following potential costs of UK copyright infringement:

  • If your organisation infringes copyright it runs the risk of investigation by Copywatch, the compliance arm of CLA, as well as legal action by the copyright owner(s).

  • Financial costs – infringement is usually a civil offence and any damages would be awarded at the discretion of the court on a case-by-case basis. Additional damages could also be awarded regarding the flagrancy of such infringement as the justice of the case may require.

  • Damage to reputation – any legal action is bad publicity for your organisation and can affect its image, incoming investment and, worse still, future revenues.

  • Individual officers of a company can be held responsible and employees could be personally liable for infringement in certain circumstances.

  • Evidence of infringement presented to an organisation by CLA usually results in an out of court settlement or the purchase of a licence – so it is worth obtaining a licence in advance.

  • Income received by writers, publishers and visual artists in return for the copying of their work is an important income for creators and non-compliance denies them this remuneration. CLA licences ensure that writers, visual artists and publishers receive a fair reward when their work is used so they can continue to invest their time and money in creating new content.

Whatever your line of work may be, it’s vital that you understand how to use copyrighted material fairly. The consequences of a copyright infringement can be costly. If you want a clearer understanding of how issues surrounding copyright can impact on starting and running a business, make sure you sign up to our 'How does Copyright affect my business' workshop. Check our events page to see all upcoming workshops. 

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