Copyright and copywriting

This was in my inbox this morning:

“I need to register/copywrite a name so that I am the sole user of the name without having to get permission or make a payment to anyone to use it. Can you advise me on how to go about this?
Thanks, _______”

I know. Fabulous, isn’t it?

But I get mail from people who can neither spell, nor differentiate copwriting from copyright law, on a surprisingly regular basis.

Now copyright law affects me most frequently in 3 ways, so I thought I’d take a quick look at them.

1. Having written, back in 2004, what has now virtually become the de facto set of Terms and Conditions for copywriters in the UK, I am often asked by other writers if they can ‘borrow’ them.

Now, these Terms and Conditions are my copyright but, if people ask, I suggest for their own good that they use my document as a source, but adapt and rewrite to suit their own business need. If they do that, the new document will be a ‘derived work’ of my copyright, but they will have my email to show that I allowed them to rework my original if I were to turn mean and try to sue.

Other copywriters, however, from time to time and often without knowing the origin of the Terms and Conditions they are stealing, help themselves to my document, either from my site or from the site of someone else who has already adapted it.

These people are in breach of copyright. If I spot them, I mail to tell them so and encourage them to write their own terms, using mine as a guide if it helps them. If they decline I could, in principle, sue them (though am unlikely to do so).

2. From time to time, like most copywriters. I get asked to visit a site that does not belong to the person asking me, copy its content, and then rewrite this content so that it cannot be readily recognised as the same work.

That it would be OK to do this is a misconception, according to the UK Copyright Service. Any adaptation of a work is legally regarded as a derived work; so if you simply adapt the work of others, it is still their work, and they have every right to object (and are also entitled to any money you make from their work).

“The only safe option is to create something that is not copied or adapted from the work of others,” they advise. “There is nothing to stop you being inspired by the work of others, but when it comes to your own work, start with a blank sheet and do not try to copy what others have done.”

3. Finally, who owns the copyright in the work you do for clients as a freelance copywriter? Assume that you do when you write it, but that the client does once they have paid your bill, unless you specifically agree otherwise in the contract you make with them. But unless you have a client who is having you write a novel or screenplay for them, why would you want to retain copyright? Best to agree upfront a fee for which you will be happy to assign the copyright and then move on to the next job. As my colleague Natalie Odey-Knight points out, this is dealt with in more detail on the site of the Intellectual Property Office.

If you are employed as a copywriter, of course, it’s a different matter, and copyright in the work you do will normally reside with your employer. If they are an agency selling your work to clients, they will normally resell the copyright to their client when the client pays their fees.

This page on the UK Copyright Service site dispels 10 popular myths relating to copyright.