What is Copyright Law?

Within my design studio, the term copyright often pops up during projects.

I’ve found clients that were unknowingly infringing other peoples copyrights whilst some wanted to know more with regards to protecting their own copyrights but overall there is a lack of understanding of what a copyright is and what you can and can’t do with it, so.…. let me break it down

The below explains what is copyright law and how it applies to anything such as trademarks, product design or authoring a book. The simple analogy below can be applied to almost anything making it very easy to understand.

Intellectual Property (aka IP)

Whether it’s a design, dance, patent, trademark, logo or song, it’s classed under the title of intellectual property.

Intellectual = from the mind
Property = Ownership, the thing owned

It’s quite simple. Any original idea conceived from your thought process is classed as intellectual property. All ideas start in your head and because of that you want the right to own it, that’s why it covers any form of idea.

Here’s where it gets a little trickier.


It’s an odd law because there’s no official form of registering a copyright. It’s like natural law and it magically comes into effect when you produce an original idea.

E.g. I draw a picture of a lawnmower.
The moment my pen hits the paper to draw the lawnmower, I automatically own the copyright as the author of the drawing.

There may be 10’s, 100’s or 1000’s of people designing lawnmowers but Copyright provides me with some basic initial protection to say that I drew this particular lawnmower picture.  Any evidence such as rough workings, sketches or research that helped to me to draw the lawnmower would also help me to prove the drawing belongs to me as it proves my thought and working process to create that design.

This process can be applied to almost anything from photography and literature to code and concepts and it’s purpose is to define who authored any given asset and who has the right to make reproductions of that asset.

The Copyright symbol and copyright work

Copyright is again quite simple in definition, “the right to copy work”. Naturally, you have no right to copy someone else’s work without consent. The symbol itself works as a deterrent to warn off possible thieves but to be honest it’s not required. Whether there is a copyright symbol present or not, you do not have any rights to copy any work without consent.

Just because it may be publicly viewable it doesn’t mean you can just take it.

How can you use someone elses work?

Copyright establishes the author/owner of any work and their terms of usage. Consent may be given by the owner for free, by licensing or in a hundred different ways. It comes down to the specific authors terms but permission must be given in any case.

A Registered Design

Maybe you’ve designed something which looks truly unique. You could say that it’s the visual dynamics of something that you want to protect within a design.

E.g. I designed and drew a lawn mower shaped like a flying saucer for the purpose of style.

It’s not a trademark or patent but it can be a registered design to make sure that no one else’s lawnmower looks the same.


A more familiar, stronger and detailed form of protection is a patent. A patent is a way of registering a design/idea but one that is much more technical. It protects the process of a design or the way a design is built via its components.

Used by inventors it can establish the ownership and authorship of an original idea and again give that person the copyrights as to who can reproduce/sell it.

E.g. The flying saucer shaped lawnmower runs not on petrol, electricity or solar power but the actual grass it cuts.
The lawn mower’s visual design can be a registered design but more importantly, it’s the internal mechanism which turns grass into energy that should be patented. What’s more, there may be a smaller mechanism inside of that mechanism that holds another patent.

It can get tricky but an easy way to think of it is – Protecting a technical idea or process.


A trademark is what most people think a copyright is.

Trade: Commerce
Mark: A distinguished sign

It’s an individual mark of ownership to distinguish itself from other companies and products. It is again a stronger and registered form of copyright which applies to logos and branding and a way of protecting your company’s identity.

E.g. Grassergy Lawnmower TM


I’ve explained the basics of the topic but disputes create a twinned and tangled web of scenarios. It’s very specific to the individual case or industry its related to which may also bring in other forms of protection such as publishing, licensing and usage but the best way to distinguish that an idea is yours, is to keep evidence.

Every good idea whether it’s a brainwave or not has to be researched and developed. These stages are imperative to show how you created and finalized an idea.  It’s the stepping stones of your work and could be worth more than the final idea itself.

Always keep all research and rough workings to show how you came up with and finalised an idea.

An Interesting and mind boggling copyright scenario

Who owns a photo: The photographer, The model or The company

Models are paid for their services and a release form is signed to signify that the model gave their permission to be photographed and releases their rights to the photograph (being the subject of the photograph).  The release may also stipulate fees or conditions as to how the photos can be used.

The photographer owns the photo as the author.

The company hiring the photographer will have T’s & C’s to decide who does actually own the photos, them or the photographer or what license/permissions are allowed with the use of the photos.

The company may have paid to hire the photographer to take photos but did they pay for the rights to own th photos themselves?

Overall it’s about detailing what is being bought and what rights of ownership and reproduction each party have.

At the end of the day, copyrights and ownership only create problems when profit is involved. It’s at that point when an asset has value that copyright, patent, IP or registration becomes a topic for discussion, debate and disagreement.

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