Copyright has evolved over the centuries to protect
rights in intellectual property. It provides a basis for trading in these
rights and a means whereby they can be exploited commercially. Rights
holders are able to license the rights in their work to be exploited in
different ways (e.g. in book form or to be made into a film) and also in
different territories, in a system of exclusive sublicensing.
long does copyright last?
Since 1996 the UK term of copyright has been brought into line with
other European countries, thus increasing it from 50 years to 70 years
after the end of the year in which the author died. In the US it is
the same and most EU countries have 50 years from the author’s death,
following the Berne Convention. There are exceptions and detailed
information is available from a useful page supplied by
In the case of copyright held by a company or institution, this period
runs from the end of the year of first publication.
Retaining your copyright
Unless there is a very good reason, authors should in general seek
to retain copyright in what they write. The most obvious exceptions
are if a writer is employed by a newspaper, journal or company, when the
writer is producing the work as part of their job. In some instances
commissioned work for books is not copyright to the author, but this
should be made clear at the outset and is one of the clear disadvantages
of working to commission.
Copyright and royalties
Copyright has no necessary relationship to royalties, so a
writer may retain the copyright in their work without receiving royalties
from it. Similarly, royalties may be paid on work which is not the
author's copyright , although this is probably relatively rare.
It is not unknown for an author, or more often their publisher, to have
to take legal action in protection of their copyright, but on the whole
copyright is respected. The exception is in countries where book
pirates operate. It can be a very lucrative to print a cheap edition of
a book which is heavily in demand and then to sell it. The pirates
have not borne any of the origination costs and will not pay any royalties
from their illegal edition to the author. India is an example of a country
where the pirates have run rampant, but various anti-piracy measures put
in place over the years are beginning to change this. China, with all the
changes, is still a
problem in this respect.
Copyright under pressure
In the four years since the first version of this article was
written, copyright has come increasingly under threat. This is
largely because of the feeling that everything on the Internet should be
free. It's an attractive idea to many, but it does not allow those who
create content to get remunerated for their work. Publishers and
writers are not therefore being finicky tightwads when they insist that
the copyright in authors' work must be protected. Having said
that, it does not look as if DRM (or digital rights management), which
seeks to protect a file from being copied or stolen, is very effective.
The jury is therefore still out on how this will be resolved.
Protecting your copyright
Many writers worry about losing their copyright. Before sending
out your manuscript it is always advisable to put a copyright line
consisting of the copyright sign ©, the year and
your name on the title page. It is difficult to be absolutely sure
that your work will not be stolen or plagiarised, but in general these
fears are groundless. Given how difficult it is to get it published, you
should ask yourself why anyone would be trying to steal your work.
However, if you are still feeling nervous, there are some other
precautions you can take, not so much to prevent this happening as to
establish your copyright, so that you have strengthened your position if
it is infringed.