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A brief word on Copyright

Copyright is a vexed subject, on which most people have entrenched opinions. Those with the most liberal views are generally people whose incomes are not derived from selling their creative efforts. As a writer myself, I get extremely annoyed when I see my work reproduced without receiving payment.

Setting personal views aside, what are the rules concerning swapping, trading, selling or otherwise exchanging copyright material, such as old television programmes and films? Can you absolve yourself from liability by the magic words "No Rights Given"? And what are the rules for showing old programmes or films to an audience?

Copyright means copyright

For a start, all creative works (and these include films, television programmes and commercials) are automatically copyright. Copyright gives owners clearly defined rights and protection over the exploitation of their work for a significant period of time. In some cases, music rights still subsist after other rights have expired, and without an extremely detailed knowledge of copyright law you flout these rights at your peril.

But I paid good money!

Yes, you paid for the video tape/disk or the film print that you bought but this covers only private viewing by yourself and your own family. Close friends are probably included but not if there's a dozen of them.

The box said it was a Public Domain video!

It is true that many films and programmes have lost copyright protection in the USA at some time and are now considered 'public domain'. All the same, those items that are in the public domain in the USA are generally still copyright in other countries (including Britain). The loophole that enable once-copyright material to lose its protection in the USA has now been closed by newer legislation. In short, whilst copyright provisions varied from country to country in the past, they are now largely harmonised world-wide and particularly throughout Europe.

Whose rights?

In short, you must assume that every film and programme under, say, 70 years old is copyright - and that's it. The law gives the copyright holder almost absolute control over the work and the fact that you have a print (or a video tape or disk) and a means of displaying it does not in any way diminish the copyright owner's absolute control over the work. You cannot copy or sell it in any form, nor exhibit it to third parties, without the copyright owner's legal approval.

Hot property?

Technically, most of the film prints sold at film fairs are not the property of the person selling them; they have 'slipped out of the system' at some stage. Vendors usually label them 'For home use only; no rights given or implied' but this is really a cop-out. At least one British dealer has had his collar felt by Mr Plod for selling recent cinema film prints and he of all people should have known better.

But I'm not charging for these copies...

The fact that you don't charge money is irrelevant. It's not your property to sell and whether you charge or not is not the issue. Look at it this way... if some piece of scum steals your brand-new computer but instead of selling it at a car boot fair, donates it to the local orphanage or church group, would you say "Oh, that makes it all right then"?

What is considered public exhibition?

Some private groups have claimed they are exempt from these rules because the performance is for members only, with no access for the general public. Case law indicates that anything other than watching a copyrighted film in your home with no-one but your immediate family will be considered a public exhibition and is a copyright infringement if no licensing rights have been obtained.

But what about viewing copies provided for research or pre-sale inspection purposes?

Good point. These would presumably come under the terms of 'fair dealing' as defined by the various copyright acts.

What does British law say about making personal archives?

Section 71 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 says "The making for private and domestic use of a photograph of the whole or any part of an image forming part of a television broadcast or cable programme, or a copy of such a photograph, does not infringe any copyright in the broadcast or cable programme or in any film included in it". 

What is 'fair use'?

Copyright law contains "fair use" provisions for copyrighted materials when these materials are to be used for "private study, scholarship, or research". Likewise, it also covers use of excerpts from copyrighted materials for the purposes of editorial review or journalistic writing in print and on radio and television. An important point to make here is that if copyrighted material is used in this way, then employed by someone for purposes outside this provision, then that other person (the third party) may be liable for copyright infringement. Given the ease of transferring text and graphics from one place to another while using PCs and the Internet, it is frighteningly easy for someone to violate copyright without even knowing it. It is best to err on the side of caution. 

Are you a lawyer?

No, all this is based on my own interpretation and on what I have read in well-informed articles.

What would happen if I break these rules but in a very discreet fashion?

Probably nothing. The people most likely to be caught are those who openly post their great lists of trading wares.

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