Media Law: Copyright

There is no copyright in news itself, only in the form in which it is expressed. In McNae’s essential law for journalists, copyright is described as a property right in law, to control who can copy work created by artistic and other intellectual endeavour.

In the UK, material is protected under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. The ‘first owner’ of copyright in an artistic, literary, dramatic or musical work is the author as creator. This includes the journalist as an article’s writer and photographer as creator of a photo. The ‘first owner’ has the copyright unless he/she agrees for payment to assign to another party that right to control who makes copies. Whereas ‘assign’ means to transfer ownership of the copyright, ‘license’ means to permit a use of the copyright work. A copyright owner whose rights are infringed can seek an injunction and/or damages. Judges have cited the rough guideline that ‘anything worth copying is usually worth protecting’.  Durations of copyright are set out in section 12-15 of the 1988 Act.

Copying photos or text from the Internet and/or social network sites (i.e. Facebook) and publishing the material without the copyright owner’s consent is an infringement of copyright unless a relevant defence or exception applies – this includes downloading.

In the same way, publishing a photo of the whole or a substantial part of a television or film image without permission can infringe copyright under section 17 of the 1988 Act.

In regards to copyright in speeches and interviews, and in notes or recordings of them – Section 58 of the 1988 Act (a specific defence for journalism) states it is not infringement of copyright to use a record of all or part of a speaker’s words for reporting current events, as long as:

(1) The record of the words is a direct record of their utterance, and is not taken from a previous record or broadcast.

(2) The speaker did not forbid any note or recording being made of his/her words, and making the record of them did not infringe any pre-existing copyright.

(3) The use made of the record of the words is not of a kind prohibited by the speaker before the record was made.

(4) The record is used with the authority of the person who is lawfully in possession of it.

There is no copyright infringement in reporting what is said in proceedings of the UK and Scottish Parliaments, the Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies, or the public proceedings of statutory public inquiries, and there is no copyright infringement in reporting what is said in court cases. However, work produced by civil servants in the course of their employment is protected by Crown copyright, which can last for up to 125 years.

Fair dealing defences

Defences of fair dealing are available for publication of copyrighted work, if the copying is not excessive and if the publisher honours requirement for attribution to the creator(s). There are two ‘fair dealing’ defences in section 30 and 178 of the 1988 Act that recognise the public interest in media coverage being free of some copyright restraints. These are:

  • for the purpose of reporting current events; and/or
  • for the purpose of criticism or review.

A public interest defence is likely to protect a media organisation’s publication of copyrighted work if the purpose is to expose it as an immoral work, or one damaging to the public.

Photographs are excluded from the fair dealing defence which covers reporting news and current events. However, some creators – such as those who post on social media sites such as Flickr – give a general ‘open content’ license for their photos to be copied and distributed free of charge, as long as attribution to the creator is made clear and any specified conditions are honoured. However, falsely ‘passing off’ work or material as your own can lead to infringement of copyright and carry serious damages if proven guilty.

In summary, it is always best to use material that is your own – and if not – either purchase or ask for permission from the owner.



About brackenstockley

Contributor to the JusticeGap and WINOL. Currently studying journalism at the University of Winchester (Year Three).
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