Nothing in this section is a substitute for qualified legal advice.
Careful reading of MacNae's Essential Law for Journalists will
help to keep you out of trouble in many situations, but avoid
the temptation to be your own lawyer. Find one with a good
working knowledge of defamation and consult him or her.
You know already that you should not copy other people's work and pass it
off as your own, nor should they do that to you. Nor should work be
reproduced without the originator's permission, for which it may be
necessary to pay a fee.
Copyright law is concerned with people's right to benefit from their work,
and not have others benefit from their work unlawfully.
Most countries adhere to the Berne Convention on copyright.
In Britain the relevant law is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act
1988, which protects the products of people's skill, creativity, labour
or time, and covers "any literary, dramatic, artistic or musical work,
sound recording, film, broadcast or typographical arrangement"
(MacNae's Essential Law for Journalists).
Artistic works include photos and graphics; "typographical arrangement"
covers the way pages are set out.
Copyright does not have to be registered or declared in Britain; it
exists from the moment the work is created. The only safe assumption
is that work is copyright. Even if the author has been dead for more
than 70 years (see "Duration" for an explanation) there may still
be a copyright.
If your work is done "in the course of your employment", copyright
normally belongs to your employer. But freelances, even when doing
ordered work, retain their copyright unless they have signed to
People guilty of infringing copyright may face criminal prosecution.
More often the copyright owner obtains an injunction to prevent the
infringement; they may also seek damages, and an order for the
possession of infringing copies and material used in the infringement
(which has included the entire contents of a printing works).
Defamation is a minefield. Always seek legal advice.
These notes are just an introduction to a complex subject.
Slander refers to spoken defamation, libel to published defamatory
statements including those written, printed, or broadcast on radio
Judges tell juries that statements about a person which do
any of the following things are defamatory:
expose the person to hatred, ridicule, or contempt;
cause the person to be shunned or avoided;
lower the person in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally;
disparage the person in her/his business, trade or profession
In libel actions the judge decides if the words complained of are
capable of holding a defamatory meaning, the jury decides if they were
To succeed in a civil libel action, the plaintiff must prove that the
statement complained of:
has been reasonably understood to refer to him/her (not necessarily
has been published to a third person.
Just as important are what the plaintiff does not need to prove:
that the statement was false;
that the defamation was intended;
that the plaintiff has been defamed.
Someone could sue for libel even if the people to whom the statement
was published knew it to be untrue. Only a tendency to discredit
need be shown; the court assumes damage.
A cautionary true case: A prominent public figure stated publicly that
of a dozen people in his town pursuing a particular profession,
eleven were honest.
This clearly meant that he thought one of them was not.
How many were able to sue for defamation? Answer: All of them. Because
he did not identify who he thought was the odd one out, the imputation
of dishonesty would apply equally to each of them.
Every day clearly defamatory statements are published.
They drag people's reputations down, hold them up to "hatred, ridicule
or contempt"; how do the publishers get away with it?
One defence is Justification, which in non-lawyer language means the
words complained of are true in substance and in fact.
It is a complete defence and also one of the most difficult.
Opinions expressed in good faith and without malice on a matter of public
interest are safe - but read on.
The facts upon which the comment is based must be true. The only exception
is where the comment is based on privileged material (see Privilege)
such as a court report.
The defendant need not persuade the judge or jury to share the
opinions which may be exaggerated, obstinate or prejudiced
as long as they are honestly held.
Accord & Satisfaction
This defence to a libel action simply means that the
matter has been otherwise dealt with. For example, the plaintiff
has accepted the publication of a correction and apology.
If the defamation was not foreseeable, as when a fictitious character is identifiable with a real person or where facts unknown to the writer make the statement defamatory.
Under the 1952 Defamation Act there is a defence if:
the words complained of were published innocently and an offer of amends is made in accordance with the Act.
That the plaintiff has died (dead people cannot be libelled or
slandered in law);
that the plaintiff agreed to the publication;
that proceedings were not started within three years of publication
(keep your notebooks);