Unlike many other intellectual property rights, Copyright does not require registration to be enforceable.
Copyright accrues automatically upon creation. For example, in writing this guidance note, or in the taking of a photograph, copyright is created in the corresponding text and image.
The default position in UK law is that the first owner of copyright in a work will be the author: for example, the writer of an article, the photographer in respect of a photograph, and so on.
Where the law deviates from the above is in circumstances of employment. The first owner of copyright created “in the course of employment” is the employer, not the employee.
Disputes can arise between employees and employers if they both stake respective ownership claims in what may be valuable work. Where an employee’s role changes from what was originally set out in their employment contract or if they create work outside of what is expected of them “in the course of their employment”, ownership can become unclear.
Therefore, to reduce the risk of dispute, regular employment contract audits are recommended. Specific IP clauses can also be included in employment contracts which clearly set out the rights position. Managing employee expectations at an early stage can invariably be more cost effective than arguing the issue in court, when it could be too late.
Outside of employment, when third party independent contractors are commissioned/retained to produce content for a business, copyright disputes can also arise.
One of the highest potential risks of dispute is in regard to the creation of a website. A new website will often involve creating text, graphics, images, and video content, authored by the contractor. Who owns that content?
Absent any contractual terms agreed between the parties, the first owner of copyright in the content is the contractor, not the paying party. Ownership of copyright does not automatically transfer upon payment. It matters little how much has been paid to the contractor for the work.
In most scenarios, this may not be a problem: provided that the contractor is paid, they may have little interest or value in retaining/reusing or restricting use of the content.
However, when disputes arise over payment for example, the commissioning party can be denied permission to use content for which they believe they have already paid.
Therefore, it is recommended that clear contract terms (T&Cs) are put in place beforehand so that each party’s responsibilities are set out and, in the case of copyright, rights transfer upon payment.