Lately, the concept of copyright has been creeping in and out of my world like a creature in the shadows, urging me to sit up and take notice…
It’s muscled its way in when I’ve been working for clients. It sneaks past every time I tell people I’m a copywriter and they mistakenly think I am a specialist in the other kind. It even showed itself briefly during the General Election when the Green Party’s manifesto included plans to limit UK copyright terms for authors from 70 to 14 years to promote shared cultural heritage, an idea that understandably caused a howl of protest from prominent artists, including Al Murray and Philip Pullman, who saw their livelihoods being wrenched from their grasp.
Copyright has popped up in some unexpected contexts too. And aroused some serious intrigue…
“Did you know, for example, that many maps have ‘trap streets’ marked on them to prevent others from copying them?”
Watch out for traps
When listening to the brilliant lexicography podcast The Allusionist, I was astonished to discover the extraordinary lengths to which publishers will go, to protect copyright — and that their efforts stretch into some of the most sacred printed reference materials we know.
Did you know, for example, that many maps have ‘trap streets’ marked on them to prevent others from copying them? Even entire trap towns, such as Agloe, New York and Goblu in Ohio have been created. Did you realise that computer programmers use ‘honeytokens’ such as fake email addresses to prevent stolen mailing lists? And, perhaps most shockingly, that numerous dictionaries and encyclopedias contain fake words as snares to prevent dastardly word pirates from unlawfully copying material?
I didn’t either. But they do. Allow me to elaborate…
Fake words are collectively referred to as ‘Mountweazels’ after one of the most famous examples of this illicit practice.
In 1925 an edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia included an entry for a ‘Lilian Virginia Mountweazel’, allegedly a lady who made photo essays of American life and, having been born in Bangs, Ohio, died aged 31 in an explosion while on an assignment for combustible magazine.
Other now famous examples include the word Esquivalience, originally included in the second edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary and said to mean ‘the unlawful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities’.
Or the jungstak, allegedly a Persian species of bird whose male has only a right wing and female only a left. On their opposite side each bird has a piece of bone shaped like a hook or an eye respectively so that when they join together they may soar up to the clouds, but remain grounded when alone. Seriously, you couldn’t make some of this stuff up.
Except they did. Obviously.
Copyright in the UK (the serious bit)
From Disney vs. the Estate of A.A. Milne over the rights to Winnie the Pooh, to Vanilla Ice vs. Queen & Bowie over similarities in their music, there are numerous examples of famous copyright cases across all art forms both in the UK and abroad.
But what exactly is it and how does it work? Copyright law in the UK currently covers literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and typographical works, as well as sound recordings, films and broadcast and cable programmes. The work must exhibit a “degree of skill, labour or judgement.”
“Names, titles, slogans and short phrases are not usually considered unique or substantial enough to be covered by copyright… you cannot copyright an idea.”
Different types of work have different durations of copyright applicable to them (between 25 and 70 years), and for that period the copyright lies with the creator of the work, be that an individual or a collective. Copyright applies from the time a work is created. Publication in any form, including on the internet, is covered and once copyright expires the work will usually enter the public domain and can be used freely.
Names, titles, slogans and short phrases are not usually considered unique or substantial enough to be covered by copyright but something like a logo that combines a number of the above in a unique and individual way might be. It may be possible to register shorter items and phrases as a trademark. You cannot copyright an idea.
A copyright notice can be helpful. Copyright exists with or without it but this draws attention to the issue and help deter plagiarism, as well as identifying the owner.
Itching to know more?
Websites like the UK copyright service offer further useful information and advice on protecting your work as well as guidelines on what’s legal when using the work of others.