Keeping yourself informed in the information age: a quick guide to copyright

The 21st century is an increasingly technological era, and it has become all too easy to break the law with just a few misguided clicks. With personal computers in every home (perhaps served by super-fast, fibre optic broadband) and mobile phones that provide us with 4G connections while we’re on the move, it is more important than ever to be aware of copyright law. This is because, thanks to the principle of strict liability, ignorance is no defence.

What is copyright, and why should you be aware of it?

Copyright is quite a novel form of protection for intellectual property – notable examples of which include songs, films, photographs and literary works. Whereas entrepreneurs seeking to protect their brand by way of trade mark, or their product by way of patent, will find that there are applications to be made, and registration fees to be considered, copyright protection applies automatically. When an artist creates a copyrightable work, their rights to that work are protected without them having to take any formal steps, or pay any fee.

Another potentially startling fact about copyright protection is that it generally lasts for a period of 70 years – far longer than the maximum term of an expensive patent. Given that copyright is an automatic form of protection – which lasts for the better part of a century – it is more than likely that every song, video and photograph you encounter online is protected by copyright. Being aware that each piece of content you come across is someone else’s intellectual property is the first step towards ensuring that you respect their rights.

What do we mean by “copying”?

Copyright protection may be free, but it is comprehensive. “You get what you pay for” is not a maxim to be bandied around here. Where an item is protected by copyright, the law not only prevents anyone other than the copyright owner from copying that item, but also prohibits several methods of ‘communicating’ that item to the public. This includes electronic methods of sharing, such as uploading files to a website. Failure to abide by these laws may result in an injunction – meaning you’ll be compelled to remove the image (or other item) you have shared – or, more seriously, financial penalties.

Can you get a licence?

Where an artist has rights of ownership over a copyright work, they might choose to provide third parties with a licence to use that work. Often, the owner will charge this third party a licence fee. This allows the owner earn money for the use of the work, without losing their rights to the work as a whole – for example, a photographer might sell rights to their work to a magazine, or newspaper publisher. If you infringe copyright, the financial damages you’ll be made to pay will often reflect the cost of the licence fee you would otherwise have had to pay to the owner.

The dangers of social media

Given the recent popularity of social media platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr – which rely on the sharing of user-generated content – it has perhaps become easy to get the impression that sharing is a carefree affair. However, the law makes it very clear that it is no defence to say that you were unaware that your actions were unlawful. In one case, it was said that if a blind man were asked to photocopy a set of documents, without being informed of the contents, he could still be found liable for copyright infringement if he copied a copyright work as a result.

It is hoped that this highlights the importance of keeping yourself informed, and that by bearing in mind the principles of copyright law you can make sure you won’t run into unnecessary difficulties online. Think before you share that video, or post that photograph.

This blog post was written by Calvin Walker. Having advised entrepreneurs as a member of a Business & Commercial firm in the Student Law Office, Calvin has developed a particular interest in the areas of IP and IT law. After graduating he is hoping to secure a training contract with a commercial firm in order to build upon his experiences in the SLO.