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Copyright basics

Copyright is a type of intangible intellectual property that grants copyright owners of original creative works exclusive legal rights over how their works may be copied, distributed, published, adapted, displayed, or performed, usually for a limited period.

Copyright protects a whole work or a ‘substantial part’ of a work. A substantial part of a work is not defined in law, but courts have often interpreted it as a qualitative measure of significance rather than a measure of quantity.

Copyright protects the tangible expression of an idea fixed in the form of a creative work not the idea itself, nor does it protect simple facts. It is an automatic right and does not need to be registered. The use of the © symbol is not a legal requirement for asserting copyright but is a useful means to inform users of the copyright ownership.

Like other forms of property copyright can be sold, licensed, inherited or bequeathed. Copyright provides incentives to produce creative works by protecting the economic rights of copyright right holders to renumeration from the reproduction or performance of their works by others.

The exclusive rights of copyright holders are subject to limitations and exceptions that permit the copying and use of copyright protected works in specific circumstances without the permission of the copyright holder. Exceptions to copyright seek to balance rights holders’ exclusive rights with wider societal considerations such as educational, cultural, and personal uses.

The use of a copyrighted work under many exceptions in the UK, however, must qualify as ‘fair dealing’ and therefore crucially is a justification, rather than a right, per se.

Copyright in the UK is governed under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 (and subsequent amendments) also known as the CPDA.

Under the CPDA copyright owners can take civil action against parties they think have infringed their copyright by copying and/or using or performing their works without their consent.

The CPDA defines eight types of copyright protected works.

Literary works

Copyright in literary works covers anything which is in written form, either print or electronic, and so includes articles, books, websites, poetry, song lyrics and unpublished documents. It also protects computer code for software. There is no requirement of literary merit - the idea simply must be expressed in writing, but it also must be original.

The standard duration for copyright in the UK for literary works is 70 years from the death of the author, but for unpublished works where the author died before 1969 copyright expires in 2039.

Artistic works

Copyright in artistic works covers photographs, graphic works such as drawings, paintings, etchings, engravings, diagrams, charts, maps, typefaces and three dimensional works such as sculptures and buildings. There is no requirement of artistic merit to qualify for copyright protection.

The standard duration for copyright in the UK for artistic works is 70 years from the death of the artist, however there are variations to the standard duration for unpublished works or where the creator is unknown.

Typographical arrangement

Copyright in the typographical arrangement refers only to the layout of the words on the page, and not to the words themselves. There could be instances where the words themselves are out of copyright, for example a play by Shakespeare, but the typographical arrangement is still within copyright. Copyright lasts for 25 years after the publication of the item.


Creative works that comprise of moving images are protected by copyright as films. Films of fiction would also qualify as dramatic works.

The standard duration of copyright in the UK for films is 70 years after the death of the last of the following persons connected to the film died, the principal director, author of the screen play, author of the dialogue or the composer of the music created for the film. Films where there is no director, screenplay, scripted dialogue or composed music have a shorter duration for copyright of 50 years after the film was made.

Films may also include other layers of copyright if they include musical, literary, artistic, or dramatic works. Films may also be subject to performer’s rights.

Sound Recordings

The standard duration for copyright in sound recordings in the UK is 50 years after the recording was made, or 70 years after a recording was made available to the public if released within 50 years of the original recording.

Sound recordings may also include other layers of copyright if they are recordings of musical, literary, or dramatic works. Sound recordings may also be subject to performer’s rights.

Musical Works

The standard duration of copyright protection for musical works in the UK is 70 years after the death of the composer and if relevant as a co-author the lyricist, although lyrics are protected separately as literary works.

Dramatic Works

Dramatic works are creative works that are meant to be performed to an audience such as plays, operas, dances and fictional films and TV dramas. The standard duration of copyright in the UK for dramatic works is 70 years after the death of the author but for unpublished dramatic works where the author died before 1969 copyright expires in 2039.


Broadcasts such as television or radio transmissions are protected by copyright in the UK for 50 years after transmission. The copyright in the broadcasts is owned by the broadcaster, however the broadcasted material may also be protected by copyright as a film, musical, literary, or dramatic work.

Copyright is owned initially by the creator of the work, but ownership can be legally assigned to another party, for example as part of an author's contract with a publisher when the work is published. If this happens, the author will need permission from the publisher to make further use of the work not specified in the contract.

The copyright of works produced during the normal duties of employment usually belongs to the employer, rather than the individual author, unless special provisions for the author to keep his or her own copyright have been agreed in the contract of employment.

Copyright can be jointly owned where a work was produced in collaboration by two or more authors where the contribution of each author is not distinct from the others.

If a work is commissioned the commissioned party will own the copyright unless there is a contract in place that assigns copyright to the commissioning party.

Copyright in films is initially jointly owned by the principal director and the film’s producer.

Copyright in sound recordings is initially owned by the party that arranged for the recording to be made.

Copyright in typographical arrangements is owned by the publisher.

Copyright ownership can also be inherited or bequeathed to another party after the death of the copyright holder.

Moral rights are closely related to copyright. Whereas copyright focuses on the economic rights of copyright holders, moral rights recognise the personal emotional and intellectual value invested by the creators of copyrighted works.

Unlike copyright, moral rights cannot be assigned to another party but can be waived.

Moral rights have the same duration as copyright and after death may be inherited or bequeathed.

There are four moral rights recognised in the UK:

The right of attribution.

This is the right to be recognised as the author of a work. This right needs to be asserted before it applies. For example, in a contract with a publisher, an author may state that they assert their right to be identified as the author of their work.

The right of integrity

Creators of copyrighted works have the right to object to derogatory treatment if they feel it affects the integrity of their work. Derogatory treatment is defined as any addition, deletion, alteration to or adaptation of a work that amounts to a distortion or mutilation of the work or is otherwise prejudicial to the honour or reputation of the creator.

The right to object to false attribution

Any person has the right to object to being falsely attributed as the author of a work they did not create.

The right of privacy

People who commission photographs or films for private and domestic purposes, can prevent them from being made available or exhibited to the public.

Should the owner of a copyright-protected work feel that their copyright had been infringed, they would sue (i.e. take civil, rather than criminal action), but they would have to demonstrate that financial or moral damage had been done.