Chapter 73: Copyright

In this chapter we look at a specialist area of law which anyone who works with words should know. This is the area of copyright.

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What is copyright?

Many countries have special copyright laws to protect the words written by one person from being used by another person without consent. This protection is called copyright because it gives the person who wrote the words the exclusive right to copy them or say who else may use them. Copyright can also apply to other things which are created, such as music, sound recordings, photographs, films, paintings or other works of art, but for the purposes of this chapter, we will talk mainly about words.

The words in ‘The News Manual’ are protected by copyright. As the authors, we have the right to copy the words in further editions or in other publications, but anyone else who wants to reproduce this work will have to ask us for permission and perhaps pay a fee (called royalties). That permission or fee only entitles the person to use it under certain circumstances which have to be specified, such as when including one of these chapters in their own book.

Similarly the drawings in this book are protected by copyright: only the artist has the right to copy the pictures in further editions or in other publications.

Copyright is automatic

In most countries which have copyright laws, authors do not have to do anything to register their copyright. The law says the copyright exists from the moment the words are written. However, copyright does not cover ideas until they have been put in some permanent form as the result of some effort, skill or experience. For example, much of the advice we give in this book comes from ideas which are commonly talked about by journalists throughout the world. We do not have the copyright on those ideas. But we do have copyright on the way they are expressed here. If someone else writes those ideas down in a different way, that is legitimate; if they copy any of our sentences word-for-word - or very nearly word-for-word - they will infringe our copyright and we can take legal action against them for it.

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Copying without permission

Some journalists believe that they can copy the words published by other journalists without permission. This is not so. Although copyright does not cover news itself, it usually covers the way the news is written. This means that you can write about a car crash, for example, then another newspaper can write about the same car crash in its own way. But if it copies your words sentence-by-sentence, it will infringe your copyright. The courts will decide whether it has copied your work or just written a very similar story.

The law demands that one newspaper, radio or television station cannot copy another writer's work unless they make substantial changes. Simply rearranging the paragraphs is not enough to avoid copyright.

Courts have decided that copyright can even include advertisements, racing programs and sporting fixture lists. However, it only covers these things in the original form. You do not have to ask for copyright if you substantially change the way the information is presented.

Some journalists also believe that you can avoid copyright laws by acknowledging where you got the original words from. This is usually not enough. Most laws demand that you must first ask permission from the original writer before you copy their work.

You must also be aware of the copyright on pictures, both still and moving. You must get permission from the owner of the pictures (usually a newspaper, television station or picture agency, occasionally an individual) before you can copy them for your audience.

Fair dealing

There are, however, circumstances in which you can use other people's work without permission or paying them royalties. Under the fair dealing provisions of most copyright laws you may use other people’s work if you only use short parts of it and you tell your readers or listeners where the original came from (called attribution). In some countries you are also expected to have made “substantial changes” through your own effort.

For example, you can report on somebody else’s work - such as another newspaper's story - without seeking permission. You might, for example, write a story reporting that the other newspaper claims that the Minister for Housing is about to be dismissed. You cannot use the other newspaper's whole story word-for-word, but you can report what they have said if you also name that newspaper.

Reviews

Reviews are another special case. The law usually allows a reviewer to quote short passages of the work under review - such as a book - as long as they clearly acknowledge the title of the work and the name of the author.

However, this exemption does not cover other documents copied for news stories or feature articles. It especially does not cover documents which have been leaked to the media without the owner's permission. Because the owner did not know that they were being leaked, they could not give permission. If you quote extensively from a leaked document, you could be infringing the owner's copyright, and could be sued.

Most documents which are given to reporters by their rightful owners can be safely copied. These usually consist of press releases, official reports and transcripts of proceedings. But you should ask for legal advice before reprinting any document you have some across by any other means.

Be careful too of using music in radio or television news reports or documentaries, perhaps to illustrate a story, for example using Abba's "Money, money, money" to introduce a finance story. While it is generally acceptable to use short excerpts of music when reviewing it, most record companies strictly enforce the copyright laws where their own product is concerned.

As a journalist, your work will be protected by any copyright law in force in your country. However, you may not own the copyright personally. Many laws state that, if you are paid to produce an article by someone else, the person who paid you owns the copyright. Your newspaper, radio or television station will probably own the copyright of any work you produce in their time.

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Duration of copyright

In many countries, copyright on a work continues from the moment it is produced until 50 or 70 years after the death of the author, depending on which country the copyright exists in. After the expiry of that period the work is in what is called “the public domain” and can be used freely. For example, in Australia, if the author has died less than 70 years ago, you must ask their literary heirs for permission. After 70 years, the copyright ceases to exist and you are free to copy the words. Copyright on radio and television programs lasts for 50 years from the date of first broadcast.

Copyright may also be bought and sold during that period of coverage. For example, the American singer Michael Jackson bought the publishing rights to most of the early Beatles songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. These rights then became the property of a joint venture between Jackson and Sony. Now any time that one of those early Lennon-McCartney song is played on a radio station, some of the royalties have to be paid to Michael Jackson.

International copyright

Finally, copyright can extend from one country into another, if both countries have signed an international copyright convention. There are several such conventions in existence. The most common is called the Berne Convention. You should check if your country has signed any of them. If it has, you are not allowed to copy the work of foreign authors or photographers without permission. The symbol © usually shows that work is protected by an international copyright convention, if it accompanies details of who owns the copyright.

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Index to Chapter 73
  1. What is copyright?
  2. Copyright is automatic
  3. Copying without permission
  4. Fair dealing
  5. Reviews
  6. Duration of copyright
  7. International copyright
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