What is Copyright?

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Copyright is a wide-ranging subject, and relevant to many creative and non-creative industries.  It is arguably the most universal of IP rights, covering written materials, music, art, logos, and computer programs, to name a few.  It protects most visual brand elements, such as logos, packaging and websites, though it may also be possible to register some of these as designs or trademarks to secure added protection.

Copyright protects original expression, but not ideas themselves.  So, if someone were to suggest you draw a picture of a bird, or gave you an idea for a plot, you would own copyright in the picture or plot you produce, as long as you don’t copy the words or image from someone else.  The person who suggested drawing a bird, or whose idea it was that you write a love story would not have copyright in your work.

Can I copyright my name?

Some people ask to “copyright” their name.  Surfers wonder whether copyright prevents them from using particular words for their product or business.  Even newspapers and popular online publications make the basic mistake sometimes of reporting names as being copyrightable.  In fact names are not protected by the law of copyright.  It is trademarks that protect names.

It was in a case in 1982 Exxon Corp, where it was decided that copyright does not protect names.  The company unsuccessfully applied to stop Exxon Insurance Consultants calling themselves Exxon, arguing that it had copyright in the name as it had spent substantial amounts of money developing the name.  In a landmark decision, the UK Court of Appeal disagreed and took the view that it was not possible to have copyright in a name, because a name is too brief.  Regardless of how much investment or time is put into the creation of a name, no matter how clever it is, from a policy point of view the court decided to keep names outside the scope of copyright protection.  Instead, names are protected by the law of trademarks.  Some famous examples of slogans which are also protected by trademarks are Nike’s Just Do It, and L’Oreal’s Because you’re worth it.

What does this mean for you?  Well, for names and slogans you need to turn to a trademark expert for help.  While for other works, such as those outlined at the start of this blog, generally all you need to do to own your work is to record it in some way (for example by writing it down, taking a photograph, or getting it on tape).  If you ask someone else to do work for you, for example to develop a website, then you need a contract before you engage them, to give you the copyright, otherwise they will own the rights in the site.

To secure exclusive rights to the name of your business or product, it’s important to get an expert in trademark law to evaluate whether the name is legally effective and available.  If it is, then registering it as a trademark is a sensible step to take so you can own the rights to the name you are generating goodwill in. So, when you come up with a name you like, remember that there are steps you need to take to own it.  Why not drop us a line to discuss trademark registration?