A Brief Guide to Copyright for Authors

A basic introduction to UK copyright law - not a replacement for qualified legal knowledge or advice, but a useful overview intended to point self-publishing authors to the right resources.

How Does Copyright Work?

In the UK, the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 is the current legal authority on protection. The Act states that a work is copyrighted and owned by the author for the duration of his or her life plus an additional 70 years following their death. If the author is unknown, work will be protected for 70 years beginning from either the date the work was first made or the date the work was first made available to the public.

Copyright laws were first put in place in the early 20th century to protect writers and artists from essentially having their property stolen. Copyright ensures the owner (that is the writer, photographer, painter, etc.) of a creation has the right to take legal action if his or her work is used without their consent. As soon as a piece has been created, that work is copyrighted and in most countries that copyright will last the duration of the creator's life.

We're often asked about copyright, so we've put together some useful information for self-publishing authors. However, we are by no means legal experts - for up to date information and guidance on the subject we recommend you seek legal advice or visit the UK Intellectual Property Office website. The US Copyright Office has similar information here.

Here are the basics:

  • Authors hoping to include a written extract or picture (for example, a poem or photograph) not created by them must seek permission from the owner in order to use it.
  • Only in certain situations can an author print someone else's work without seeking permission. These include educational, criticism or review purposes, or when the owner has been dead for more than 70 years and the work has passed into the public domain. Brief and familiar quotes may also be used without permission. However, if you are unsure whether the quote meets the legal requirements, it is always worth checking.
  • It is up to the self-publishing author to make every effort to contact the copyright owner (whether it be the photographer, writer, painter, or the artist's estate if he or she is no longer living and it is within the 70 years since their passing).
  • If you are not successful in making contact with the copyright owner, you must make a note in your work stating that you have tried to make contact and you would be pleased to hear from the copyright owner to acknowledge them in any future reprint. Make sure to keep a copy of all the relevant correspondence as proof to your claim of having tried to get in touch.
  • If you do succeed in gaining permission, the owner may allow you to use his or her work through either assignment or licensing. This may sometimes attract a fee.
  • In an assignment, the rights to the work may be sold and the owner retains no further interest in it.
  • Most commonly, you will be granted licensing, where you are allowed to exploit the work but 'the licensor retains overall ownership'. Licenses can be granted informally, even orally, and take no particular form.

What about protecting my own copyright?

Copyright is something that a lot of new writers worry about, but in practice it's probably not something you should lose sleep over.

The chances of someone stealing your work are minimal, and even if you suspected someone had stolen it you'd have a hard (and expensive) time proving it. There's no copyright on ideas, so someone could defend themselves successfully by saying they'd had an idea at the same time as you (and this does happen - in the late 80s two Robin Hood movies went into production at the same time without realising it... sometimes, an idea is just a good one and several people have it at the same time).

Your copyright is not in the idea, but in the expression of the idea - so the exact words written in the exact same order. As an author you automatically have copyright over your writing, unless you assign it to someone else. It is not necessary to go through any formal procedure - if you wrote it, and you have not infringed someone else’s copyright, then the copyright is yours. Copyright means that no one can use your work without your permission.

There is currently no central copyrighting agency in the UK, but there are a lot of agencies who will take your money in exchange for copyrighting your work. You'd need to research whether you think this was affordable, worthwhile, or legally enforceable. Some writers used to say that a cheap way of being able to prove your work is your own can be to print it out, seal it in an envelope and post it to yourself by registered post. When it arrives, don't open it but keep it in a safe place. This could help you prove by date stamp that you were the first person to write the work.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I use song lyrics?
It's vital to do your research, as the rules are quite strict. Check out the following popular posts on the topic here, here and here.

Is there copyright in book titles?
The short answer is no, but to avoid confusion in the market place, you might avoid using the same title as a well-known or bestselling book. Read more here (UK) and here (US).

Can I use real people in my book?
The following articles should be useful here, here and here.

Do I need permission to quote from newspapers?
Read advice from the New York Times here.

Is there an organisation that can help with permissions?
Browse the PLS Clear website here.

Further resources for self-publishers and other writers

  1. The best place to get information on UK copyright is the government, and they have web pages here and here. The US Copyright Office has a useful FAQ here.
  2. Oxford University Press feature useful information on definition and duration here.
  3. Also, the print edition of the Writers & Artists Yearbook usually has an excellent chapter on copyright for writers.
  4. Fair dealing discussion here.
  5. Newspaper archive content here.
  6. There's an ongoing NaNoWriMo discussion thread here.
  7. And finally there's an update on changes here.

If you found this article helpful, you might also like:

A Printing and Publishing Glossary

Why Publishing Your First Book is Scarily Like Having your First Baby

A Quick-Glance Guide to SilverWood's Publishing Services

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“If you’re thinking of self-publishing, I hope you don't go at it alone. With a team like SilverWood behind you, you have the support you need to publish the best work you believe in.”

J A Higgins