Online copyright infringement in the UK
What is online copyright infringement?
In very simple terms – as the name suggests – this involves the wrongful copying of something in an online context. In the UK, the law of copyright is set out in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. The key issue is usually whether what is taken is a “substantial” copy of the original work, which can be measured in terms of quality, as well as quantity. To qualify for copyright protection under UK law, a work (which can include a digital work such as a web page) has to be original and to comprise a degree of labour, skill or judgment.
But often, for internet lawyers dealing with internet copyright infringement, the issue is not so much whether an infringement of copyright has occurred but, rather, how to enforce your copyright.
Does you need to register or use the © copyright symbol to protect copyright?
No, to both. Under UK law, if a “work” qualifies for copyright protection, then this arises automatically on creation. There is no need to register, although there are plenty of organisations in the UK who will try to give you the impression otherwise. (In the US there is indeed a system of copyright registration and there are various legal restrictions on enforcing copyright in the US if you haven’t registered.)
Nor is it essential that you use the copyright symbol and copyright notice although displaying this does make it difficult for others to argue that they thought that the work was not subject to copyright.
Is misuse of a trading or brand name considered a copyright infringement?
Often people think that copyright protects against misuse of a name or brand but usually names or phrases are too insubstantial to qualify; such disputes tend to involve different legal forms of intellectual property, known as “trade marks” and “passing off”. (See internet trade mark infringement for more about this.) Though sometimes there is an overlap.
For example, a business may try to confuse customers into thinking that it is connected with a competitor by say coming up with a close copy of the layout and colour scheme of the competitor’s website, potentially involving both passing off (trying to look like the competitor) and website copyright infringement (the copying of the website features).
What are typical examples of internet copyright infringement?
As internet solicitors, we increasingly see blatant forms of internet copyright infringement involving the wholesale copying of a website, which is then used to perpetrate some kind of fraud. Sometimes the design and content of the website are identical to the website which has been copied, except that the name and contact details of the site operator have been changed. On a few occasions, we have even encountered cases where the fraudsters have forgotten to remove some references to the original proprietor’s name. This kind of infringement can of course have serious consequences, not simply because of the use for fraud, but also because Google looks unfavourably on duplicate websites. One of our clients only discovered the website copyright infringement after a sudden collapse of its own website’s Google rankings.
Or the online copyright infringement may involve copying certain components of the website, perhaps only its “look and feel” or maybe some images and/ or text.
How best to enforce website copyright infringement?
As with other forms of internet infringements, enforcing copyright online can be tricky, e.g., because the infringer is located abroad or can’t be identified at all. That certainly is a problem if you want to recover compensation. However, often, the main objective of victims of internet copyright infringement is simply to have the infringing material removed.
One route is to achieve this is to take action against whoever is hosting the infringing material. In the UK, the web host can be liable for website copyright infringement if it fails to remove the offending content within a reasonable time after being put on notice. In the US, there is a notice and take down procedure under the “Digital Millenium Copyright Act” or “DMCA” which can be a useful route to removal of web copyright infringements hosted in the US. However, in either case, if you don’t apply sufficient pressure to the “primary infringer”, then that person can simply switch to a new host.
Another route is to seek removal of the infringing website from search engines.