An overview of copyright

A publishing company’s most valuable assets are the intellectual property rights it owns. Copyright is the most important of these rights. Having a clear understanding of how copyright works for publisher and author is therefore essential. The finer points of copyright law vary between countries, but publishers can always be guided be certain general definitions and principles. These will apply wherever they operate.

What is copyright?

The principle of copyright protects the work of the individual who creates it, such as an author or painter. It isn’t necessary to apply for copyright. As soon as the work is finished it’s automatically protected by copyright, although certain criteria must be fulfilled. The work must be original and made with skill and judgment on the part of the originator. It must be in a finished form, such as a completed book, document or manuscript.

Where is copyright applicable?

Copyright protects a vast array of original work. Literary works, paintings, photographs, sculpture, films and music are just some of the areas where copyright applies.
Only completed works are covered, so the book must be completed, the painting finished, the music recorded before the copyright comes into existence. This also means that ideas, plans and projects in the early stages of development cannot be protected by copyright.

Benefits for copyright owners

The first owner of copyright is the person who created the work. As such the copyright owner has economic rights over the work. This means only they can use the work or authorise others to do so – allowing books to be published or paintings to be displayed for example.
Copyright also confers a moral right, so the owner can be attributed with the creation of the work. It gives the owner the right to object if their work is portrayed in an inappropriate manner. Even when economic rights are contracted to others, authors always retain their moral rights. Even if they chose to waive them, they cannot legally be assigned or licensed to someone else.

Different kinds of copyright

A project can easily have a variety of different copyrights. For example a book may consist of text, drawings and photographs. All these elements will have their own copyright and managing them is likely to be complex, especially as different owners could be responsible for each aspect. Publishers will therefore need separate agreements with each provider.

Implications for publishers

In order to publish, distribute or otherwise make use of a work in any way, a publisher will need to enter into an agreement with the creator. As such the publisher becomes a manager or custodian of an author’s rights. Indeed the publisher is exploiting their rights, but in a way which is of mutual benefit to both parties. In so doing they incur a moral as well as a professional obligation to approach the relationship with respect, and to act in the owner’s best interests as well as their own.
This arrangement must be governed by a contract between publisher and owner. Sometimes this grants the copyright to the publisher. However the more common course of action is for publishers to operate under license, which may be exclusive or non-exclusive.

Best practices to protect publishers and owners

Publishers need navigate a complex set of regulations and relationships in order to function. Fortunately certain common sense measures can be applied to ensure there are no infringements of copyright law and that both parties are fully protected.
Infringement occurs when the original work is copied, rented, adapted, distributed, performed or placed in the public domain in any way, without the consent of the copyright owner. A clear and comprehensive contract between publishers and authors will make sure that both parties are fully aware of how the material can and can’t be used.
Publishers should always act with integrity and be quick to publish corrections, clarifications and retractions if necessary. Publication of libellous, blasphemous or obscene material will always be illegal and of course morally unacceptable as well. Furthermore client confidentiality must be maintained at all times.
By keeping these points in mind, publishers will have a clear framework for managing the intellectual property rights of copyright owners in a way that’ll benefit both parties.
Publishers and owners can find further information from The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a body that provides general guidance, which is applicable worldwide. Details can be found at The UK based Copyright and Licensing Agency also offers comprehensive information at
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