HRD's pocket guide to... copyright law

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The HRD’s pocket guide series offers an explanation of areas outside day-to-day HR that business-savvy HRDs need to have a handle on

Why do I need to know about it?

In a 24/7, interconnected online world, where we have the ability to share almost anything at a click or swipe, it can be hard to discern the original creator of something.

This has actually been a problem since 1710, when the first copyright legislation was created. But as the way we create and consume content changes, new challenges are cropping up and the area is arguably more important than ever.

“Copyright law is important for businesses and individuals because it is a mechanism to help protect individuals’ and businesses’ creative output. If you invest time and effort in creating intellectual property [IP] it is right that you should be able to benefit financially,” states Martyn Freeman, general counsel, BBC Studios.

“Copyright law, along with trademark law, design law and patent law, protects people and entities who create something,” says Kieron Sharp, CEO of the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT). “The purpose of the law is to enable a person to make a profit from a creation – although the creator is entitled to give it away. It is also there to protect the product of a company where its profitability and the livelihoods of the workers depend on selling a unique product.”

What do I need to know?

Copyright law in the UK is governed by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. The act has eight fixed categories of ‘works’ that content must fall into to be covered. These are: literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, sound recordings, films, broadcasts, and typographical arrangements.

While you may think only ‘creative’ organisations need to worry about copyright, these categories actually cover a broad spectrum. “A literary work could be an instruction manual. An artistic work could be a company logo,” says Joshua Marshall, a senior associate in the intellectual property and technology protection and enforcement team at Fieldfisher.

The law can be a little grey over when something is copied and when it’s been inspired by another work, Marshall adds: “Existing copyright works can be used as inspiration, provided a qualitatively substantial part of the work is not taken. Just because a part of something has been copied, that does not mean copyright has been infringed.”

The law could soon change, however. The EU’s Copyright Directive, passed in April 2019, is an effort to modernise copyright legislation, prevent piracy and ensure that original creators are paid properly. The UK has two years to comply, so depending on whether Brexit happens as planned we will need to update our laws.

Regarding proper pay, Time calculated in 2014 how much artists earned from their songs being streamed on Spotify. Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’ earned between $280,000 and $390,000 (£228,397 and £318,125), which sounds substantial. But considering the song was streamed 46.3 million times, that makes each play worth less than a penny. This money could then be split further, depending on whether Swift owns the full copyright to the song (unlikely).

Regarding illegal content sharing, video hosting platform YouTube is currently embroiled in talks over whether it will be obliged to roll out an upload filter that will catch and block copyright violations.

Where can HR add value?

HRDs could be creating copyrighted material without knowing it. Written a staff handbook? That’s copyrighted. Designed a poster campaign? Also copyrighted. Unfortunately you probably don’t own that copyright.

“Copyright law provides that an employer owns the copyright in works produced by its employees during the normal course of their employment. Where this is not the case – for freelancers and contractors for example – the company would usually take an assignment of the copyright in any work produced by those individuals while working under contract,” explains Freeman.

“Unlike some other IP rights, copyright is an unregistered right meaning it arises automatically on creation of the ‘work’. As a result businesses and individuals create copyright works every day without realising it,” Marshall adds.

HR practitioners should also keep an eye on what employees are doing. If you work in a creative or innovation-orientated sector competition (and copying) could be rife. “It may be the case that employees within companies rip each other off,” says Sharp. Which could lead to workplace conflict over who actually created something.

Anything else?

Copyright law will continue to be topical. The Intellectual Property Office is investing in educating the public, including school children, on copyright issues.

“There are many threats from people who believe copyright is unnecessary and certainly politicians across Europe would like to see copyright law simplified or abandoned,” explains Sharp. “All of us who work in this world would love to see it simplified but it’s difficult to know how to achieve that – by its very nature its bureaucratic. Protection of creations is an absolute necessity and as yet no-one has come up with a better system.”

This piece appeared in the September 2019 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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