INDUSTRY KNOWHOW Copyright: What is it?

Copyright. What is it? How does it affect you and the work you create? KnowHow editor, Eleanor Pender, together with Dr Miriam Johnson, Senior lecturer in publishing at Oxford Brookes University, take a closer look.

KnowHow recently explored terminology in author contracts, looking at moral rights, contract rights and special sales with the Society of Authors.

Author contracts are personal and these rights sit alongside copyright. In this series, Dr Johnson and I will take a closer look at copyright, what it is and how it affects your work.

A Brief History of Copyright
Copyright has existed for over 300 years. Before 1700, the right to produce and sell books was given to printers more than authors. In 1709, authors gained the exclusive ‘right and liberty’ of printing books, though this was a right and liberty usually exercised by granting a licence to the actual printer. The Statute of Anne confined this right to a 14-year term, renewable only once.

In 1886, the Berne Convention introduced a minimum framework of principles to be observed around the world. This was to provide a balanced framework and create an international standard. For instance, this offered some protection to Charles Dickens when he toured and read his work in America, where copyright was far less controlled and enforced in the early 1900s.

While the Berne Convention was introduced and signed in the 1880s, it was not properly implemented until the 1980s with the UK Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988. Since then, there have been frequent amendments, mainly to enact European Commission Directives.

Peter Pan
Peter Pan is a special case of copyright through a special bill in the UK where the copyright (generally) will not expire. Play-write and author J M Barrie gave the rights to Peter Pan, his most famous and long-lasting work, to the Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1929. Any time the play was produced, a licensing fee was paid to the hospital and any time an edition of the book came out the hospital would receive the royalties. Great Ormond Street Hospital also had the right to refuse permission to Peter Pan, which granted them some creative control over how the characters and story were represented.

How copyright works
Copyright contracts balance statute law and contract law. Copyright itself only refers to the “recorded” form of an idea:
  • A specific text, piece of code 
  • An image, logo or photograph 
  • A sound 
  • A film or video 

There is no registration, copyright exists automatically, though these rules differ from country to country. For example, you can't register in the UK, but you can in the US. Registration can provide important benefits, such as proof of ownership.

Generally, the author is the first owner of the copyrighted work. Protection then lasts 70+ years beyond the death of the author, although, in many countries, such as the United States, or any European Union country, the duration is longer.

This list of copyright items above is not exhaustive. This is a brief introduction to copyright, helping to outline why it was created and what writers have needed over the years as laws change and evolve. Do you have any particular questions about copyright? Let us know and we can answer them over this series.

Main image by freestocks on Unsplash

Living in London, Miriam is the Senior Lecturer in Publishing at Oxford Brookes, specialising in the MA in Publishing Media and the MA in Digital Publishing. Discover more about Miriam’s work and projects on her site and follow her at @MiriamJ801.

Based in Bristol, Eleanor lectures in digital communications and chairs YA and middle-grade events at festivals including Bath Children's Literature Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival, and YALC. She is currently working on a young adult fantasy novel.


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