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What Designers Should know About Copyright


Copyright is a word which seems to be known by many and understood by few. In the most basic terms, copyright is designed to protect the copyright owner’s right to monetise the content in question. In terms of design this generally comes down to three core points: reproduction, display and derivation (the creation of other works based on the work to which you own the copyright).

To what can copyright be applied?


In the UK, copyright is automatically applied to any original work. While the theory is straightforward, applying it in practice can get complicated, particularly when it comes to determining the extent, if any, to which any given work can be considered original. For example, the “50 Shades” trilogy started out as fan fiction for the “Twilight” trilogy and yet, in spite of the similarities between them, it is accepted as an original work. It’s also worth noting that copyright protects original work rather than original ideas, hence anyone who develops a great plot for a story would probably be best to keep it secret until they can develop it to a point where copyright applies.

The question of creation and ownership

From the perspective of the law, the default assumption is that the person who creates the content owns the copyright to it, unless they actively make an agreement to assign it to someone else. The law recognises “work-for-hire” agreements, which are pretty much what their name suggests, agreements according to which copyright is automatically assigned to someone other than the creator, in return for payment. Really these are just a specific form of copyright sales, but they do deserve some degree of special attention.

Work-for-hire agreements in the 21st century world

If you are an employee creating content for your employer, then there is a very good chance that your contract of employment will specify that the copyright to work you create will automatically be assigned to your employer. These days, in the freelancing/gig world, astute content buyers may also request that full copyright to the work be assigned to them, but this can be a more complex situation. In some cases, it may make perfect sense on both sides for the freelancer to assign full copyright of a design to their customer. For example, a company looking for a designer to produce a corporate logo has very good reason to want full control of it and would probably only consider working with a designer who agreed to this. From a designer’s perspective, any logo which was created to reflect a company’s particular identity would probably have, at best, limited value in other contexts and hence they would probably be giving up little to nothing by assigning copyright to the hiring company. In other situations, where the work does have potential resale value, either in and of itself or as a basis for derivative products, then a designer might want to think longer and harder before agreeing to assign copyright to the buyer, at the very least, they should look at pricing the content to reflect its full value.

Selling copyright versus licensing it

When a content creator sells the copyright to a work, they literally give up all rights to it. When a content creator chooses to licence a work, they retain ownership of it, the licensee simply has the right to use it and the content creator may be able to place constraints on how they use it. This applies even when an exclusive licence has been granted. In this situation, the copyright owner will be unable to sell the work elsewhere, but they can determine when, how and indeed if, the licensee can use it. Overall, therefore, from the perspective of content creators, there can be a lot to be gained by going down the licensing route rather than the sales route.

If this is an issue that affects you please contact us for more information.

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