All Rights Reserved

Last updated: January 2023 | 4 min read

On media of all types, including the text in books or webpages, images and video, you’ll see the words ‘all rights reserved’.

As a content creator or owner, you might wonder whether you need to include them yourself.

This article explains the law in the UK.

Origin of the term

The term ‘all rights reserved’ originates from the Buenos Aires Convention (the ‘BAC’).

The Convention is an international treaty, signed in Buenos Aires on 11 August 1910, that gave mutual legal protection to rights holders of intellectual property in the signatory countries.

Once the law had been ratified in a signatory country, every citizen of that country gained the right to have the rights in their work protected under the laws of every other signatory country, provided that the work included a statement ‘that indicates the reservation of the property right’.

Meaning of all rights reserved

The words ‘all rights’ refers to copyright. In some countries, copyright is limited based on public interest considerations, but generally, ‘all rights’ refers to legal rights to copy, distribute, adapt, display, perform, create derivative works, and distribute.

Reserved’ is the translation of the Spanish word ‘reservados’, which can mean to hold for oneself or to retain.

The phrase ‘all rights reserved’ is therefore a statement that the copyright owner of the work asserts their rights to legal protection of that work under the BAC.

Inclusion of the name of the rights holder and the date

The BAC was partly a response by the USA and Latin American countries to an earlier treaty between ten European nations that aimed to protect the intellectual property of their citizens.

That treaty was the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works of 1886, more simply known as the Berne Convention. In particular, it gave the owners of works (particularly authors musicians and artists) automatic rights of protection for at least 50 years after their death as soon as the work was ‘fixed’, without any need to register, apply for or assert their rights

The UK was one of the ten first countries to sign to the Berne Convention.

By contrast in the USA, The Copyright Act of 1790 required copyright to be registered at the Copyright Office and for the work to contain a notice asserting copyright along with the owner. Rights were recognised for a fixed period of time after creation, which is why stating the date of creation was required in the notice.

So for a long time, while a UK creator wishing to protect their copyright in the UK has not been required to do anything, to protect those rights also in the USA, that same creator was required to register their rights and also to include a notice of ‘all rights reserved’, their name and the date.

In 1989, the USA joined the Berne Convention with the effect that there was no longer a requirement to do anything to protect rights in the UK or the USA.

The copyright symbol ‘©’ originates from the Copyright Act of 1909, a US law. It was allowed as an abbreviation of the word ‘copyright’ so as to be less intrusive on works of art – particulaly paintings. It was more widely adopted under another treaty, the Universal Copyright Convention (the ‘UCC’) in 1952.

There is no longer a need to do so.

181 of the 195 countries in the world have signed to the Berne Convention. Many of the others comply with the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (‘TRIPS’), which gives rights holders similar protection.

So it is no longer necessary to include a copyright notice, whether ‘all rights reserved’, ‘copyright’ or ‘©’ because nearly all countries recognise the rights of citizens of other countries.

However, many people and businesses still do.

One reason to do so is to show to people that might infringe those rights that the owner is aware that they have those rights. Inclusion might just dissuade anyone who is unsure whether copyright exists from using that material.

As well as putting a copyright notice on your work, you might include a term within a contract, such as one in your website terms and conditions, that expressly forbids copying. Generally, including the term in a contract is easier to enforce than relying on copyright law.

What can be protected?

Copyright exists in the original expression of an idea in a creative work, but not the idea itself.

It applies to any creative work, from written works, to musical works, to images, to sculptures, to films, even to things such as the design of the layout of this page.

But because it doesn’t apply to the idea, anyone is able to take the idea and express it differently.

For example, you could make a film about a person from another planet who was adopted by parents on Earth, subsequently finds he has superhuman powers to benefit humanity, but who becomes vunerable when exposed to a green mineral.

But you can’t broadcast the film Superman to a paying audience without permission of the rights owner.

Different countries recognise copyright for different periods of time.

In the UK, generally you have copyright over your work for 70 years after your death.

However, for music, it is 70 years from first publication.

Licensing rights

Even if you assert your rights in a notice on the work, you can still also grant use of, transfer or sell those rights.

Copyright is an intellectual property asset, which can be ‘exploited’ in a similar way to a physical asset.

Such actions are all known as licensing. Intellectual property licensing agreements set out what rights are granted or transferred, to whom, for how long, for what use, where and whether they can further be transferred or granted.

In any disagreement over who owns rights (or whether they exist), it is always useful to be able to show that you have the original (or the oldest copy), or that you have an agreement from the ‘originator’ or creator of the work that gives you those rights.

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