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Copyright Law Basics For UK Software Developers

Software developers all over the world can benefit from an increased understanding of intellectual property (IP) laws and how those laws may affect their work. Software programs are often complex works that include both functional and artistic elements and may be covered by a variety of different types of IP laws. This can be very confusing for those who haven’t been taught about IP and can cause them to miss out on opportunities to protect their own work or to accidentally infringe on the work of another.

The purpose of this article is to provide information about one type of IP law, copyright law, for software developers who live or work in the United Kingdom. Below we will discuss the definition of copyright law, the source of UK copyright law, and how it applies to technological works. I’ll also elaborate on what is not covered by copyright law, as well as the UK concepts of fair dealing and moral rights as they are related to copyright law.

Copyright Law Essentials

You can learn more about copyright law in general and about how it applies to software in my previous article. Go to article →

What Is Copyright Law?

Copyright law is a type of intellectual property law that protects creative works, which can include things like plays, movies, drawings, songs, and many other things. Around the world, copyright laws give the authors or creators of literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic works the right to control the ways in which their material may be used. With regard to software, copyright law generally covers the artistic elements of a software program as opposed to the functional elements.

What Is The Source Of Copyright Law In The UK?

Copyright law originated in the United Kingdom from a concept of common law; the Statute of Anne 1709. It became statutory with the passing of the Copyright Act 1911. The current act is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988. Those interested can read the full text here.

The relevant government office for copyright inquiries is the UK Intellectual Property Office. The UK is also a signatory to the Berne Convention, an international agreement concerning copyright law that has been adopted by 172 countries worldwide.

How Does UK Copyright Law Apply Specifically To Technological Works?

Copyright law can apply to all kinds of technological works that are used with computers, tablets, smartphones, or video game systems. This includes apps, computer programs, databases, spreadsheets, screen displays, and even virtual reality environments. Copyright also applies to works that are used or distributed on the internet like websites, blogs, and other online content. In the UK, computer programs are specifically protected as literary works.

Throughout the European Union, the Computer Programs Directive provides guidance regarding the legal protection of computer programs. The Copyright (Computer Programs) Regulations of 1992 extended the rules covering literary works to include computer programs in other European countries as well.

What Is Not Covered By UK Copyright Law?

Copyright law in the UK, as elsewhere, does not protect ideas, procedures, methods of operations, or mathematical concepts (though other types of IP may protect them under certain circumstances). In other words, copyright law is about protecting a particular expression of an idea, not the idea itself, and not functional elements of a work. Additionally, names, titles, short phrases, and colors are not generally considered unique or substantial enough to be covered by copyright law. However, a work that combines some of the elements, such as a logo or design, could possibly be eligible for copyright (and perhaps trademark) protection.

How Long Does Copyright Protection In The UK Last?

Because the UK is a signatory to the Berne Convention which covered this issue, a copyright in the UK will typically be protected for either the life of the author plus 70 years from the death of the author or, for published works, for 70 years from the date of first publication. However, there are many exceptions to this rule, and each work should be treated on a case-by-case basis if there are any doubts.

One notable UK-specific exception has to do with the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan. Author J.M. Barrie gifted all of the rights to his creation to a children’s hospital in London. When the original copyright expired in 1987, an extension was added to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988 mentioned above so that the hospital could continue to collect royalties based on uses of the work (though the hospital has no creative control over how the work is used). Ultimately, this is only an unusual — and perhaps endearingly British — exception to the normal copyright term.


Photo by Christian Battaglia on Unsplash. (Large preview)

What Is Fair Dealing?

The copyright laws of almost all countries allow exceptions for certain permitted uses of copyrighted works such as news reporting, educational uses, or where the use of the work is de minimus. In the United States, one can assert a “fair use” defense if accused of infringing a copyright if the use was due to one of these permitted activities. In the UK, these permitted activities fall under the legal concept known as “fair dealing.” According to the University of Nottingham, eligible activities which can be conducted without infringing a copyrighted work include:

  • Private and research study purposes;
  • Performance, copies or lending for educational purposes;
  • Criticism and news reporting;
  • Incidental inclusion;
  • Copies and lending by librarians;
  • Format shifting or back up of a work you own for personal use;
  • Caricature, parody or pastiche;
  • Acts for the purposes of royal commissions, statutory enquiries, judicial proceedings and parliamentary purposes;
  • Recording of broadcasts for the purposes of listening to or viewing at a more convenient time;
  • Producing a back-up copy for personal use of a computer program.

How Does “Fair Dealing” Affect Technology Copyrights In The UK?

The “fair dealing” exceptions mentioned above may specifically impact copyrights for technology-related works such as software programs or databases. For example, producing a backup copy of a software program for personal use only would not be considered copyright infringement under a fair dealing exception. Though fair dealing explicitly excludes decompilation or copying a software program during decompilation, the European Software Directive allows software licensees to use their copy of the software “to observe study or test the functioning of the program” in order to “determine the ideas and principles which underlie any element of the program.”

Therefore, users may freely observe a program as it operates to determine their functions and its underlying ideas, even if the goal is to create a competing program (see the UK case SAS Institute v. World Programming for more information on this concept). However, actual copying, for example in the case of source code copying, is not tolerated since this is explicitly protected by copyright.

For practical reasons, database copyrights would not be infringed if a person with the legal right to use part or all of a database performs steps necessary to use or access the contents of the database. Also, accessing a database for the purposes of private study or non-commercial research does not infringe copyright in a database.


Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash. (Large preview)

Moral Rights In The UK

Another difference between the UK and other parts of the world with regard to copyright law is the UK’s emphasis on the importance of moral rights. Though this issue may not often arise in technology-related copyright disputes, moral rights are additional rights over and above the economic rights typically protected by copyright law.

In the UK, moral rights are: the right to attribution, or the right to be known or recognized as the author of a work; the right to object to derogatory treatment of a work, which includes any addition, deletion, or adaptation of a work that would distort or “mutilate” the work or injure the honor or reputation of the author; the right to object to false attribution, which basically means that you would not be named as the author of something you didn’t create; and the right to privacy of certain photographs and recordings, such as those commissioned for a private occasion.

One reason moral rights might be important for developers is that the moral right to attribution gives the developer the right to be named as the author of the software program, even though it is not common industry practice to do so. By the same token, if a developer doesn’t get their name associated with projects they didn’t work on, the right to object to false attribution protects them also. Find more information about moral rights here.

It is our hope that this information has been helpful for UK software designers and developers. Though this is only introductory information, and should not be substituted for legal counsel in the event of specific questions or disputes, education about copyright law issues and other IP issues helps to empower software designers and developers to make sure their works are fully protected.

Smashing Editorial
(da, ra, yk, il)

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Copyright Law Basics For UK Software Developers

The Front-End Performance Challenge: Winner And Results

A few weeks ago, we asked our readers and the community to use everything they could to make their websites and projects perform blazingly fast. Today, we’re thrilled to show off the results of this challenge and announce the winner who will be awarded with some smashing prizes indeed!
What prizes, you ask? The winner wins a roundtrip flight to London, full accommodation in a fancy hotel, a ticket to SmashingConf London 2018, and last but not least, a Smashing workshop of their choice.

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The Front-End Performance Challenge: Winner And Results

An Overview Of The Most Common UX Design Deliverables

(This is a sponsored post). What do UX designers do on a daily basis? A lot of things! UX professionals need to communicate design ideas and research findings to a range of audiences. They use deliverables (tangible records of work that has occurred) for that purpose.
The list below contains the most common deliverables produced by UX designers as they craft great experiences for users. For better readability, I’ve combined the deliverables according to UX activities:

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An Overview Of The Most Common UX Design Deliverables

Why I Switched To Sketch For UI Design (And Never Looked Back)

User interface design has changed dramatically in the last few years, as traditional computers have ceded dominance to smaller screens, including tablets, mobile phones, smartwatches and more.
As the craft has evolved, so has its toolset; and from one app to rule them all — looking at you, Photoshop! — we have gotten to a point where it seems like a new contender among UI design tools crops up every month.

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Why I Switched To Sketch For UI Design (And Never Looked Back)

Designing A Responsive Music Player In Sketch (Part 1)

Sketch is known for its tricky, advanced facets, but it’s not rocket science. We’ve got you covered with The Sketch Handbook which is filled with practical examples and tutorials that will help you get the most out of this mighty tool. In today’s article, Christian Krammer gives us a little taste of all the impressive designs Sketch is capable of bringing to life. — Ed.

Music plays a big role in my life. For the most part, I listen to music when I’m commuting, but also when I’m exercising or doing some housework. It makes the time fly, and I couldn’t imagine living without it.

Designing A Responsive Music Player In Sketch (Part 1)

However, one thing that has always bothered me is that the controls of music apps can be quite small and hard to catch. This can be a major issue, especially in the car, where every distraction matters. Another issue, in particular with the recent redesign of iOS’ Music app, is that you can’t directly like tracks anymore and instead need to open a separate dialog. And I do that a lot — which means one needless tap for me.

The post Designing A Responsive Music Player In Sketch (Part 1) appeared first on Smashing Magazine.

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Designing A Responsive Music Player In Sketch (Part 1)

Web Development Reading List #151: Microinteraction UX, Feature Policy, And Passport.js

In the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of code. As a freelancer working on multiple big projects with a lot of people, you’ll inevitably see all varieties of code styles. But I also realized how much writing JavaScript changed over the past years.
Having learned JavaScript before ES6 was there, a great mentor (Hans Christian Reinl) taught me the most important lesson: Always write clean, understandable code. Avoid ternary operators, declare variables in one place, make functions as simple as possible.

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Web Development Reading List #151: Microinteraction UX, Feature Policy, And Passport.js

Web Development Reading List #147: Security Guidelines, Accessible UI Components, And Content-First Design

When working in a team, it’s important to stick to rules. A common challenge is to build all your projects with a similar or the same toolset and coding guidelines. Only yesterday I discussed how we could port over a project that outgrew its initial codebase over the years to a fresh, React.js-based source code.
The decision for this wasn’t easy, since we had invested quite a lot of work and money into this project already, and a move to React would require quite some time, too.

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Web Development Reading List #147: Security Guidelines, Accessible UI Components, And Content-First Design

Web Development Reading List #131: Git 2.8, CSS Grids And The Key To Good Code

Although it’s April 1st, and people go all crazy making up jokes and spreading hoaxes, I’m sending out this edition to you without any April fools. Instead, I want to challenge you to put more effort, more thoughts into your code.
Instead of blindly following a given path to build the solution with the least effort, what about thinking more about your users? Wouldn’t a lot more users benefit from you spending an additional hour on building a form on your own instead of relying on a third party that involves tracking?

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Web Development Reading List #131: Git 2.8, CSS Grids And The Key To Good Code

Web Development Reading List #127: jQuery 3, UX Research And XSS In Ads

Working on very different projects, in different teams and with different people can sometimes be a challenge. But one thing that works out remarkably well is doing retrospectives with your team.
In retrospectives, you talk about how a certain project went, and the whole team shares what problems/challenges they faced, what was good and what was annoying people, why people were unhappy. And after each person has written this down on a wall (you can use Post-Its), you try to find useful solutions, small improvements that avoid conflicts, that avoid people feeling bad in a project, and that avoid unnecessary stress situations.

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Web Development Reading List #127: jQuery 3, UX Research And XSS In Ads

Variables: The Backbone Of CSS Architecture


When they hit the front-end landscape a few years ago, preprocessors were heralded as the saviour of CSS, bringing modularity, meaning and even a degree of sexiness. Terms like “Sass architecture” became commonplace, ushering in a new generation of CSS developers who occasionally went to excess with their new-found power. The results were marvellous, and sometimes undesirable.

Variables: The Backbone Of CSS Architecture

One of the unpleasant side effects was a preprocessor elitism that continues to persist. Neophyte designers who were just getting their hands dirty with CSS were overwhelmed by an influx of must-have tools and confused by the bitter partisan wars in web development forums.

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Variables: The Backbone Of CSS Architecture