The copyright laws in the United Kingdom are long and complicated but there are several guidelines that can be followed to get a better idea of what is covered by copyright and what is not.
Copyright only covers the form in which the artist, author or maker of a product has interpreted the idea and not the idea itself. If you talk to someone about your idea, but have not actually written, painted or made the object, then the other person can go away and produce the article unless it was protected by the law relating to confidential information.
If you buy an original painting, thinking that you now own the copyright, you will find that this is not the case, as the copyright belongs to the artist for his lifetime and to his heirs for 70 years after his death. Therefore, if you decide to make any sort of copy of the painting, without the artist's or heirs' permission, you would be in breach of copyright, and subject to heavy penalties if the artist brought an action in court. The artist can produce as many copies of the painting as he wishes. If an artist is commissioned to paint a picture the copyright belongs to the artist for his lifetime and to his heirs for 70 years after his death. The copyright of work done by an employee in the course of his employment is dependent on the terms and conditions of a contract between the employee and his employer and runs for seventy years from the date that the work was commissioned.
You may have seen people in art galleries copying works of art. The paintings in many galleries are now out of copyright, that is, the artist has been dead for more than 70 years, and therefore it is not an infringement to copy them. Occasionally, the copyright of a modern painting may have been assigned to the gallery, but the copyright is only assigned to the gallery for a specific period, as set out in a contract. The period of the contract can not extend beyond the 70 years after the death of the artist. It is always advisable to check all the details. You should never, of course, sign the picture with the name of the original artist or claim that the copy is by a particular artist when it is not, as this would be fraud.
Art galleries usually take photographs of the works of art in their collections. The copyright of these photographs belongs to the gallery and runs for 70 years from the date the photograph was taken if the photograph was taken by an employee, but is dependent on contract. If the gallery commissioned a photograph from a non employee the copyright runs until 70 years after the death of the photographer. If a member of the public takes a photograph of the same work of art the copyright of that photograph would belong to the person who took the photograph. Postcards, posters and illustrations are all subject to copyright.
The same rule applies to all original artistic, musical, dramatic and literary works.
Artistic works can be paintings, photographs, collages and sculptures. Also included are drawn plans of works of architecture, or models of a building and works of artistic craftsmanship.
Musical works are works consisting of music, but excluding the words to be sung or spoken, or actions performed with the music. This covers sound recordings, broadcasts, films and cable programs.
A literary work is a book, poem or lyric and also includes computer programs.
There is much talk at present about copyright on the Internet, but, in general, the same rules apply. Access to a site does not give automatic right to download or copy material from the site, unless specific permission has been granted to download one copy for that person's own use, and provided that no commercial benefit is obtained. However, the downloaded material is still subject to the laws of copyright.
If you want to make photocopies of sheet music for performance you should ask permission from the publisher of the music. They will generally give permission on payment of a fee. The same rule applies if you want to make a quotation from a book or poem, when permission should be asked if possible from the author or publisher of the work.
There are exceptions to the rules. For instance, if a short section of the work is to be copied for educational or review purposes it is not generally considered to be an infringement of copyright, but to copy the whole of a book or poem would be an infringement of copyright.
However, if in doubt always check first as the legislation is constantly being updated. The Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS), represents artists estates in the UK and can be contacted at Parchment House, 13 Northburgh Street, London, EC1V 0AH, telephone 0171 336 8811.