Top 10 copyright myths

We receive a large number of enquiries and these often highlight a number of common misconceptions and misunderstandings about copyright law. The following attempts to dispel the ‘top 10’ copyright myths.

idea thought bubble1. "Copyright can protect my idea"

Copyright applies to a recorded work, it cannot apply to something as intangible as an idea or concept. Within certain fields, (such as inventions) it may be possible to apply for a patent.

Because copyright applies to the actual recorded work - documents, music, artwork, etc., if a competitor used your copyright work, (i.e. copied or adapted your promotional literature or stole content from your website to promote their own product), this would be an infringement and you could certainly take action, but there is little you can do to prevent someone else creating their own work based on a similar idea as long as they are not copying your work to do so.

More information can be found on our fact sheet P-21: Protecting ideas.

name tag2. "I can copyright a name or title"

Copyright laws are actually very restrictive, and do not apply to items such as names and titles that may be duplicated coincidentally, or that may be legitimately used in unrelated instances.

From a copyright perspective, there is no reason why two works cannot have the same title. As long as the content of works themselves is not copied or adapted, no infringement has occurred.

This does NOT mean that there is no protection on the name, as it may be covered by other legislation: If the name was a trademark, or if it could be proved that that use of the title misleads or confuses the public, (this is known as ‘passing off’), then there can be issues.

While copyright will apply from the point a work is created, ‘passing off’ is based on the public perception of what the name implies, (i.e. you have a very clear idea of what you expect to be given if you ask for a ‘Coca-Cola’).

For further reading on this subject please see our fact sheet: P-18: Names, titles and copyright

Post box3. "I can simply post a copy to myself as proof of copyright"

This method (sometimes called ‘poor man’s copyright’), may help in some cases, but is extremely poor evidence as it is very easy to fake - for example, by replacing the actual materials inside at a later date.

The main problem if you send your work to yourself via courier or the postal service (including recorded/tracked and signed for services) or use any other system which requires you to store the work yourself, is that there is no verifiable evidence to say that the contents have not been swapped.

For more on this, our page dealing with poor man‘s copyright and other ‘alternatives’ may be worth a look.

Searching for content on the Internet4. "Everything on the Internet is ‘public domain’ and free to use"

This highlights a common misunderstanding about what is meant by ‘public domain’ when referring to copyright work. While work published on the Internet may be publicly accessible, it is almost certainly not in the public domain.

A work will fall into the public domain once copyright expires. This will typically be many years after the author’s death.

Also, in the case of sound recordings, even if the underlying work is in the public domain, a sound recording of the work will have a separate copyright to the underlying work that is featured in the recording. This means that a new recording of an out of copyright work will still be protected under copyright, even if copyright has expired in the original work.
For example: a new recording of a piece of classical music will still be protected under copyright, even if copyright has expired in the original music (please see our Music Copyright fact sheet for more information on this topic). The same logic applies to recordings of other works, such as plays and books.

Copyright symbol5. "Anything without a copyright notice is not protected"

Copyright will apply whether there is a copyright notice or not.

In the US, a notice was required to retain copyright on works published before January 1st 1978, but this was the exception, not the norm, and is certainly no longer the case. Also, once the US signed up to the Berne convention, US law was amended, and the use of copyright notices became optional on work published from March 1st 1989.

Having said this, it is still certainly worth placing a copyright notice on your work. A copyright notice reminds others that copyright exists, and may therefore help to deter infringement.

Further reading: Copyright notice fact sheet

Copyright thief6. "If I change an existing work I can claim it as my own"

The act of copying or adapting copyright work is itself a restricted act requiring the owner’s permission. Any adaptation will be legally regarded as a derived work; so if you simply adapt the work of others, they will still own the underlying work, and they have every right to object if you publish such a work when they have not given you permission to do so. They are also entitled to reclaim any money you make from selling their work.

The only safe option is to create something that is not copied or adapted from the work of others, or seek the permission of the rights owner (you should expect to pay a fee and/or royalties for this).

There is nothing to stop you being inspired by the work of others, but when it comes to your own work, start with a blank sheet and do not try to copy what others have done.

10 percent7. "I can legally copy 10% without it being an infringement"

This is not the case. Unless it is explicitly allowed under fair use or fair dealing rules, any unauthorised use of copyright work can potentially lead to legal action.

When using quotes or extracts, there is no magic figure or percentage that can be applied as each case must be viewed on its own merit. In cases that have come to trial, what is clear is that it is the perceived importance of the copied content rather than simply the quantity that counts.

Our advice would always be to seek permission before you use the work of others.

Copyright symbol8. "It’s OK to use copy or publish other people's work if I don't make any money out of it."

No, except in specific circumstances permitted under fair dealing/fair use rules, any copying or publication without the consent of the copyright owner is an infringement, and you could face legal action.

If the use has a financial impact on the copyright owner, (i.e. lost sales), then you could also face a claim for damages to reclaim lost revenue and royalties.

Justice statue9. "It’s hard to prove copyright infringement"

This is not necessarily the case. Copyright law is principally civil, not criminal law, and civil law requires a lower burden of proof.

In a criminal case, the defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. However, in a civil case, the plaintiff must simply convince the court or tribunal that their claim is valid, and that, on balance of probabilities it is likely that the defendant is guilty.

In a claim of copyright infringement, the plaintiff should be able to demonstrate that:

  • Copying or adaptation of their work has occurred, and it is not just a coincidental similarity (i.e. it is clear that someone has copied), and,
  • If the defendant claims authorship and disputes the claim, the plaintiff should also be able to supply evidence to demonstrate that they are the author and/or had the prior claim on the work; for example, a registration that predates the defendants' claim.

Paying for copyright10. "If I paid someone to create the work, I own the copyright"

Probably not, but it will depend on your contract or agreement with the work’s creator.

Simply paying for a product/work does not automatically transfer copyright, copyright ownership is a right separate to the physical work purchased.

By default, (without a contract or agreement to the contrary) the individual or collective who authored the work will exclusively own the work in the first instance. However, if a work is produced as part of employment, then the first owner will normally be the company that is the employer of the individual who created the work.

Freelance or commissioned work will usually belong to the author of the work, unless there is an agreement to the contrary, (e.g. in a contract for service).

Just like any other asset, copyright may be transferred or sold by the copyright owner to another party, so it is possible for the creator of the work (or their employer) to transfer ownership to you if they wish.

The work’s creator may specify in their contract that they transfer the rights to you upon receipt of full payment, but do not assume this unless it is explicitly detailed in the terms of service/contract. If in doubt, clarify the situation with the creator (and get any agreement in writing!).