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What Is Copyright Infringement? Practical Guide

What is copyright infringement featured
Copyright infringement is an increasingly complex are of the law. Image credit: Mikhail Pavstyuck

It’s often too easy to underestimate how far the law can reach. This is especially true in the internet age. With so much information out there, it can be difficult to understand how copyright infringement works.

There are many, many rules with regards to almost each and every little thing you can legally shake a stick at. And one of the more noteworthy sides of the law that routinely manages to have its fair share of fear and publicity would have to be copyright infringement.

But exactly what is copyright infringement? You’ve heard of it too many times to recount, and you have a broad idea of what it entails. But are you really in the green when it comes to knowing what is copyright infringement?

Let’s assume you don’t. And instead put you on an educational journey through the wondrous world of copyright law.

Copyright infringement stats
Google faces over 2 million copyright infringement claims every week. Image credit: Statista

What Is Copyright Infringement? The Basics

Let’s start with the basics. Though it’s easy to just plop down a simple definition and be done with it, we’re going to take things apart just a little bit.

When it comes to matters of the law, especially copyright law, a lot of terms get thrown around. So we’re going to be doing our best to leave no stone of legal age unturned.

It makes more sense to define what a copyright is before thinking about copyright infringement. A copyright is basically a measure the law makes use of to protect the owners of a piece of intellectual property.

Intellectual property is basically anything your mind comes up with. Stuff like art in any form, creations of any nature, and really any ideas that you want to bring to the world, like stories, music or inventions.

For a long but ultimately limited period of time, you get the exclusive privilege to make as many copies, editions and/or iterations of your own creations for whatever purpose you see fit, usually for publication or sale.

Sounds pretty fair so far, right?

You also get full control over the reproduction of your intellectual property as well as the (very appealing) right to receive monetary gain for this reproduction. That doesn’t mean it has to be you and only you forever though.

An originator of any work can grant or sell the rights they possess to other individuals or entities. You can share it with publishers, recording companies or any other intermediary you think will be of benefit.

So what is copyright infringement? Basically, we can think of it as any violation or transgression of any of these rights and regulations.

Copyrights, Patents and Trademarks: What is the Difference?

The law tends to get a little confusing when it comes to copyright.

It’s no wonder that a good amount of people seem to not really know the difference between copyrights, patents and trademarks.

Copyright, patent, trademark inforgraphic
There are several key differences between copyrights, patents and trademarks. Image credit: CareerCapitalist.

These are often used interchangeably, but this is a mistake.

Moving forward though, we can safely say we’ve established what a copyright basically is, an instrument of the law that serves to protect original intellectual properties of varying nature.

This can be anything from commercial jingles to software, from illegal reproduction and profit.

Typically, an individual’s copyright protection on original works lasts for their entire lifetime, regardless of how long that may be, in addition to another 70 years after the unfortunate death of its holder.

Should the work originate from an anonymous or pseudonymous source, copyright protection either lasts about 95 years from the time it’s been published, or 120 years from its creation date. Whichever one happens to come first.

Copyright, in essence, effectively protects several types of work.

However, copyright is not a one-size-fits-all measure, to fully understand what is copyright infringement, we’d have to consider the different types involved in any individual work.

Take a film for example, the actual footage may be protected by its own form of copyright separate from the score, capture method and any relevant scripts or text. Each one of those may have its own form of copyright as well, even the techniques used to make any of it come to life can have a separate and distinct copyright.

What is a Patent?

Patents, on the other hand, are a little bit different in their application. A patent is a property right with a somewhat limited duration that mostly pertains to an invention.

Inventions are usually what they sound like, something some industrious folk physically, mechanically or scientifically create.

Patents are territorial rights according to UK patent law, meaning they only give the holder of a patent their respective rights in the UK, and the rights to prevent others from bringing the patented products into the UK.

In order for your invention to be eligible for a patent in the UK, it must be entirely new. That is, it has never been introduced to the public in any way, shape or form worldwide before the patent is filed.

Finally, the invention must be capable of some sort of industrial application. This means it must be applicable in any sort of industry, taking an actively practical form of a device of any sort, a product or an industrial process.

What is a Trademark?

Now trademarks are a little bit more interesting. A trademark is basically any brand name, slogan or logo.

A service mark is, for all intents and purposes, the same thing with the exception being that it pertains to the source of the products and/or services rather than the goods themselves.

Though the two are distinctly different, they’re often used interchangeably to refer to each other. Now, unlike both copyrights and patents, trademarks don’t necessarily have to expire after whatever number of years.

Trademark rights rely on actual application, so long as it’s in effective use, it stays where it is. Provided that the use of a trademark is commercial, mainly to indicate their source.

Similarly, trademark registrations can last forever, given that you submit the proper paperwork and keep your fees paid on the regular. It’s worth pointing out that not all trademarks have to be registered.

So long as you use a trademark in the context of commerce, it automatically comes under the protection of common law rights.

You’ll know a trademark is registered if it has the little ® symbol stuck to it. But if it isn’t, you’re allowed to use both TM and SM for products and services respectively, signifying that you’ve made use of common law to garner your trademark.

Copyright Violation: What to Know

Copyright infringement in music stats
Copyright infringement is increasingly common in the internet age. Image credit: Statista

So, now that we have a clearer distinction between the various types of protection one’s properties can have, we can further delve into copyright infringement. We already know the basic definition, but the devil just so happens to be in the details.

To try and comprehend copyright infringement, we’ll try and simplify the many odd facets of UK copyright law according to the “Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988” (have yourself a fun read with that one).

According to the act, copyright infringements may take place pretty easily, leaving you to potentially face legal action without much prior notice, so here are a few simple examples to put things into perspective:

  • Any form of public or private presentation that includes copyright video without any acknowledgement or permission with regards to the originator counts as a violation.
  • Music played on any website or on a video (like that “sick” montage of your call of duty kill streaks) without proper licensing or permission from the copyright holder(s) is a pretty common violation.
  • Any business, let’s say an online magazine, that uses artwork, graphics or content without the explicit permission of the owner of said works is also a common violation.

These are just a few examples. There are many more situations where a copyright infringement may occur, and before you go down the erroneous path of thinking that copyright infringement is basically using an exact copy of the work, you’d better think again.

A work doesn’t have to be identical to be considered infringing. It can also just bear similarity and still count as copyright violation, in addition to the fact that quantity of work infringed and quality both count.

How to Avoid Copyright Infringement

You’ll be pleased to know that not every use of copyright material is considered infringement.

In accordance with UK copyright law, some forms of using copyright material fall under the umbrella of fair use.

Under UK law, use of copyright material is permitted under six main fair dealing scenarios:

  • For the purposes of private study and/or exploration.
  • For the purposes of examination or instruction.
  • For the purposes of critique and/or quotation.
  • For the purposes of reporting actual news events.
  • For the purposes of parody and/or caricature.
  • For the purposes of text and/or data mining.

Sounds simple enough, right?


In any case, the Copyright Licensing Agency Limited (CLA) is the sole licensing body as defined b the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, and it urges those interested in steering clear of copyright infringement to follow a few simple steps to keep out of the watchful eye of UK law:

  • Making sure to obtain the express permission necessary to copy protected material by purchasing the appropriate CLA licence, allowing you to meet the suitable demands of those that make daily use of copyright material and for copying extracts.
  • If for whatever reason you can’t seem to obtain a CLA licence, you have to directly communicate with the holder of the copyright for clearance every time you need to make use of their work for any purpose and see to any relevant fees.
  • Make sure to check with and adhere to specific terms of use relevant to any direct subscriptions oor purchased documents supplied directly, this includes any online formats.
  • If you’re fixing to use content that’s been published online, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for any copyright icons titled “What can I do with this content?” The way this is set up is to let the general public (and private sectors as well) know what publishers want done (and not done) with their copyright material,
  • Make an effort to create internal policies that best describe to all viable employees how to utilise copyright protected materials, which helps substantially reduce the risk of copyright violation.

So in essence, don’t take people’s stuff without proper permission and adequate (and boring) paperwork. It’s extremely easy to ignore all the red tape but it’s not as easy trying to ignore the wrath that ensues afterwards given enough time and complaints.

Understanding Copyright Infringement

By now, you should have a much clearer idea of what is copyright infringement, especially if you happen to find yourself in the UK side of things.

With the advent of media, the Internet and people’s access to all sorts of information, the law struggles to keep up and figure out proper channels to give everyone their just dues, but they’ll still try anyway and it does nobody any good to try and skirt the law.

So, be smart, source your stuff, ask nicely and take responsibility.

Think we missed something? Got anything to add of your own? Perhaps you’d like to tell us how your day’s going? Drop us your thoughts in the comments section below and we’ll listen attentively.

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