THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Innovation and enterprise blog

21 April 2015

Copying – right or wrong?

Across the Business & IP Centre National Network, we believe it’s important for everyone to have a think about copying. We want individuals and businesses to know about their rights to use content and creations that are either in the public domain or under an open license - and to learn more about copyright generally. As we say in our intellectual property workshops make sure you “don’t infringe!”

Copy-right or copy-wrong?

We know that to copy something is wrong; it’s been ingrained in us since we were children - and as we grew up copying took the name of ‘plagiarism’. Whether your interests are listening to music, appreciating artwork, watching films or TV series, we know copying a song, a film or a TV show without permission is wrong. Every time we watch a DVD we are told that copying the DVD is piracy. Websites are often closed down because of infringement of copyright – the right given to creators or owners of the intellectual property to control what is done with their works and YouTube videos are removed. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were more talked about for being found guilty by a US court of copying the late Marvin Gaye’s songs than for their musical talent (the court did not make any comments on the latter).

CC BY-NC-SA Chris Messina (cropped)
CC BY-NC-SA Chris Messina (Cropped ; Original picture on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/factoryjoe/6709784133)

And yet, I copy. Yes. You do too. We all copy. As you can imagine, I would never admit to doing anything illegal and I am certainly not accusing you, of committing any crimes either! That must mean there are cases where copying is right, legal and even encouraged. For example, you buy a CD, then copy it onto your computer, then copy all the tracks again on your MP3 player so you can listen to the album on the go. That is perfectly legal - and it has been very clearly so in the UK since the last changes to copyright law came into force in November 2014. So let’s see what the law does allow.

When it is legal to copy

-       Copyright does not last forever - even though new laws can change its duration, copyright has an end – in most cases, count 70 years after the end of the year in which the work’s creator died. What happens to the work after that? It enters the public domain – it belongs to everyone, and anyone can use it, without asking permission.

-       Copyright exceptions - the law recognises that there are cases when we do not need to ask for permission to re-use a work. For example, when we make a copy for private use (like with our CD), or we copy and publish an extract for review purposes, or when creating a parody of a famous picture by copying it and adding something humorous to it.

-       Open licenses - sometimes the copyright owner will publish their work and tell you it is fine for you to copy it without asking for their permission. The most common way to do this is to use Creative Commons licenses – like the ones on the pictures illustrating this post. CC BY-SA on the image below means “this work is licensed under a Creative Commons license; you can use it without asking for permission as long as you credit the author and share it under the same license”.

CC BY SA Nina Paley - Permission (2)
Mimiandeunice.com CC BY-SA Nina Paley

Copying, business and innovation

But let’s get back to business. How does all this apply to you as an entrepreneur? When you create something, you are proud of its originality and inventiveness (and rightly so); you would be horrified if someone copied you. In business, entrepreneurs legitimately want to stop others from copying them: if a competitor copies your unique selling point, then how are you going to differentiate yourself in the market? In the Business & IP Centre Network and the other PATLIB centres you can discuss with an adviser how best to protect your creations against copying. We will tell you all about copyright, but also designs, patents and trade marks.

Some large companies, like Dyson, have an impressive intellectual property strategy to protect their ideas. However, other companies like the one behind the Sriracha sauce has a more lenient strategy and encourages others to use their product name in order to generate free advertising and Elon Musk recently announced that other companies are now welcome to copy and use Tesla’s patented technology. Each company needs to think about what is the right approach for their business.

There are also industries that thrive on a type of copying – one that is called “inspiration”. Think about fashion, music, art, etc. It poses some pertinent questions for business owners; how would you react to another business copying you? Would your reaction be different if you were copied by individuals? Do you think people who copy and share your content on social networks without your permission are right, or wrong? This World Intellectual Property Day take the opportunity to get informed and discuss the role of intellectual property to encourage and control innovation and enterprise in your business.

Aude Charillon on behalf of the Business & IP Centre Newcastle

Aude is Library and Information Officer at the Business & IP Centre Newcastle and leads the Commons are Forever project, which aims to empower participants about our rights to use creative works that are free of copyright, and to in turn share what we create with others.

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