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Comparing UK and US copyright protection

Myths of international copyright law

October 18, 2018

Home Blog Research & intelligence Comparing UK and US copyright protection
Intellectual property law

Some of the most prevalent copyright questions we get are about global protection:

  • Is a US copyright valid in other countries?
  • What is international copyright law?
  • Does US copyright law apply in the UK? (or any other countries)

Copyright laws protect creators of intellectual property from unauthorized use and theft of their work, and notice the use of the plural “laws” because as clearly stated by the United States Copyright Office:

“There is no such thing as an ‘international copyright’ that will automatically protect an author’s writings throughout the world. Protection against unauthorized use in a particular country depends on the national laws of that country.”

However, countries who are signatory to copyright treaties or conventions do provide some international protections under certain conditions.

Copyright conventions versus copyright law

The primary copyright convention is the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, of which both the US and the UK are members.

Under the Berne Convention, the author may claim protection without any formal requirements for works first published in the member country or published within 30 days of first publication in a Berne Convention member country.

There are other copyright protections that rely on bilateral agreements between certain countries or come under the aegis of particular provisions of the copyright laws that protect the use of foreign writings in that particular country.

Comparison of UK and US copyright protection laws

United States copyright protection

Copyright protection in the United States is based on The Copyright Act of 1976.

US law states that a copyright is established when the author “fixed the copy for the first time.” The works must be original to the copyright owner and may be “fixed” in any “tangible medium of expression.”

That last phrase means the work may be seen or otherwise communicated either directly or by some sort of device. The copyright protection extends to the specific form in which the IP exists; different versions have a separate copyright protection.

What US copyright covers

According to, original works that are protected and not protected include (but may not be limited to):

“literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.”

The copyright owner is the only person or entity that has the right to copy, modify, create derivatives and distribute copies to the public, whether that is through a licensed product, sale or any other means.

Copyright protects against unauthorized use of intellectual property unless the use falls under an exception, for example Fair Use codified in Section 107 or the TEACH Act codified in Sections 110(2) and 112(f). Copyright owners may also choose to make their works available through a Creative Commons license. Anyone copying, modifying, making derivatives from or distributing copies to others infringes on the copyright owner’s rights and risks damages and fines.

How to apply for copyright protection in the United States

In the US, copyright protection attaches to the property at its creation. The owner does not need to file any forms to ask for protection or register the work. Contrary to popular belief, you do NOT need to attach the copyright symbol, date and your name to your creative work and mail a copy to yourself as evidence. This practice, often called, “poor man’s copyright” does NOT substitute for registration. Enforcement of copyright through the courts requires formal registration with the US Copyright Office as discussed in Circular 1 and Circular 4.

US Copyright protection time limits

Works created before January 1, 1978 have a protection length that depends on the law in effect when the author created them.

Works created on and after January 1, 1978 come under the following rules:

  • The copyright protection endures for the author’s life plus 70 years.
  • For two or more authors, the copyright protection endures until 70 years after the death of the last survivor.
  • The law considers IP created by an employee for his employer as a work for hire. In this instance, copyright protection lasts for 95 years from first publication or 120 years after creation.
  • After expiration of the protection term, the work falls into the public domain, which extinguishes the copyright holder’s rights.

US copyright enforcement

The copyright owner enforces his or her rights by lodging a claim for copyright infringement against the violator.

Some limited use falls under an exception known as the “Fair Use” Doctrine. Under Fair Use, the law does not generally consider the following as copyright infringement:

  • Critiques of the work.
  • News reports or commentary.
  • Teaching purposes and research.
  • Creating new scholarly works.

Visual artists also have additional rights that are known as “moral rights of attribution and integrity” which give them the right to stop intentional distortion, mutilation or other destruction of their artwork or infringement that causes harm to their honor or reputation.

United Kingdom copyright protection

You will find copyright law in the UK in the Copyright, Designs, and Patent Act of 1988 and in various European Union Regulations which have direct legal effect in the UK.

What UK copyright covers

UK copyright law covers:

  • Literary works (such as song lyrics, manuscripts, manuals, computer programs, commercial documents, leaflets, newsletters, articles and computer programs).
  • Dramatic works (such as plays, dance).
  • Musical works (recordings and score).
  • Artistic works (photography, painting, sculptures, architecture, technical drawings/diagrams, maps, logos).
  • Typographical arrangement of published editions (magazines and other periodicals).
  • Sound recording (may be recordings of other copyright works, e.g. musical and literary).
  • Film (video footage, movies, broadcasts and cable programming).

How to apply for copyright protection in the United Kingdom

As in the US, copyright in the UK arises automatically when the work is created. Also, the owner does not need to file any particular forms to ask for protection or register the work. Protection applies if the work is original in nature and shows that the author labored and used skill or judgment in the creation. Authors can register their work online or by mail with the UK Copyright Service, but this is an optional step to create some evidence of original work which might be useful in any future dispute.

The copyright owner has the right to control how his creation will be used in broadcast, copying, modifying or adapting, performances and renting or lending copies. The author also often has the right to be identified as the author and can register objections to misrepresentations of the work.

UK Copyright protection time limits

Copyright terms of protection are similar to the US terms:

  • Authors of literature, dramas, musicals or art works have copyright protection until 70 years after the end of the calendar year in which the last author dies.
  • Authors of sound recordings have protection until 70 years after the first publication.
  • broadcasts have copyright protection until 50 years after the first broadcast.
  • Films enjoy copyright protection until 70 years after the last director, composer or author dies.
  • Published editions of a work in magazines or other periodicals enjoy copyright protection until 25 years after the end of the calendar year in which it was first published.

UK copyright enforcement

Only the copyright owner or someone who enjoys a license with respect to a work can bring an action in UK courts for copyright infringement.

UK copyright law covers certain situations where you may be permitted to make use of someone else’s copyright protected work without seeking permission. These specific instances include non-commercial research and private study; criticism, review and reporting of current events; educational purposes; helping disabled people gain access; and parody or caricature.

While some of the above situations are similar to “Fair Use” in the United States, the United Kingdom offers a provision known as “fair dealing” which is used to establish whether a use of copyright material is lawful. Fair dealing is determined case-by-case in regarding the question, “How would a fair-minded and honest person have dealt with the work?”

Seek legal advice for copyright issues

LAC Group is not a law firm or licensed to practice law. The information provided in this article should not be construed as legal advice in any way. Consult with your legal advisors or a firm that specializes in intellectual property rights for any copyright legal issues.

We provide research and intelligence services for a wide range of enterprise information needs, including intellectual property like copyrights, patents and trademarks. Remember LAC Group when you need research support in these areas.

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