Your Business Website: Know Your Copyright

Copy in haste, repent at leisure…

When you’re setting up a new website, copyright issues can often be the last thing on your mind. However, it’s hard to overstate the importance of ensuring you aren’t in breach of copyright in any way. From plagiarising written content to mimicking famous brand names, many entrepreneurs have already discovered that their copy-and-paste sins will eventually catch them out.

Copyright is a complex component of UK law, with specialist legal firms focusing exclusively on copyright infringement. In essence, copyright law in this country is governed by the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. This detailed guidance identifies whether or not original materials and recorded works can be reused as well as outlining the obligations of third parties when republishing someone else’s work. It’s clearly not feasible to expect a budding web designer or self-employed graphic artist to read the entirety of this Act, which has 306 sections and has been amended over ten times since it was first enacted. However, a basic understanding is to be expected, since ignorance is no excuse for non-compliance…

Basically, if materials have been created by someone else you need to obtain written permission from the copyright holder before re-using them. Copyright applies irrespective of an official notice or © symbol within a document or filename, and there is no legal process required to establish copyright. A common example of breaching copyright involves searching for a generic image through Google, then uploading that file onto your website. From artists and illustrators to photographers and content owners, a variety of people may hold copyright over that image; just because it’s in the public domain doesn’t mean it’s public property.

Similar rules apply to written content, which usually belongs to the company that first published it. Copying written materials published within the European Economic Area by an EEA national without permission is a direct infringement. Breaches are easily enforceable, since copyright law is principally civil rather than criminal. For a claim to succeed the UK Copyright Service state that “the plaintiff must simply convince the court or tribunal that their claim is valid, and that on balance of probability it is likely that the defendant is guilty”. Common remedies include damages and injunctions against continued use of the contested materials.

Even names can cause issues, particularly in terms of brands and company titles. For instance, using the domain name will cause issues even if your business model involves supplying sports equipment directly to retailers. The legal term for a scenario where one brand or item may be mistaken for another is “passing off”, although this is slightly more subjective than other areas of copyright law. Interestingly, a 2011 court case established the precedent that even broadly similar images can be deemed an infringement of copyright if the original is distinctive or iconic. Plagiarism like this is known as ‘derived work’, and an infringement will be deemed to have taken place even if the defendant hasn’t profited from it.

So where does that leave a fledgling entrepreneur looking for dynamic content to populate their new website or supply to clients? Unless any source materials are obtained from a public domain site such as Wikimedia, it’s far safer to commission original content. This will either be copyrighted to you or the person who supplied it, depending on the agreement set in place.

Always clarify how you are going to use it before any work is undertaken – single-use media can’t be copied onto a subsidiary or partner website, and it may not be reusable if your company is rebranded under a different name. Similarly, when commissioning any written copy, make sure that you allow for worldwide use, and for it to be translated into any language. Just because you have a UK-based website at the moment doesn’t mean you’re not set for global domination!