Introduction to Copyright

Copyright Law

Copyright in some form or other has existed since the Statute of Anne was created in 1710.

Currently, copyright law in the UK is governed by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Part I of the Act deals with copyright law. It has been subject to various amendments and the latest amendments of October 2003 were aimed at bringing the Act in line with the EU Directive on Copyright and Related Rights in the Information Society (EU Copyright Directive) 2001 and the challenges posed by the Internet.

Copyright law exists to protect creators of various materials by preventing exploitation of their intellectual material. Copyright gives the copyright owner the exclusive right to:

  • Copy their work
  • Issue copies of the work to the public
  • Perform, show or play the work to the public
  • Broadcast the work
  • Make an adaptation of the work.

For more information, please refer to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

There is no official registration system: copyright is automatic and it commences as soon as the material has been created/recorded.

Copyright corresponds to a set of legal rights relating to intellectual creativity known as Intellectual Property Rights. There are four main types of rights, comprising of Copyright, Patents, Trademarks and Design rights. For more information, please see our Intellectual Property Rights page.

What is covered by Copyright?

Virtually anything recorded in any format can be covered by copyright. These may include literary works such as books and articles, musical and film recordings and even electronic information.

This however does not mean that entire works are prohibited from being utilised as this might be impractical in certain situations and could stifle future creativity. There is the concept of Fair Dealing where portions of material may be copied for certain uses, such as educational use provided those portions are not significant. See our Permissions and Exemptions page for more information.

How long copyright lasts for

Copyright duration is notoriously complicated and may vary for different situations. Unfortunately we are not able to cover every possible situation that may occur, though we will cover the most frequent conditions. All guidance on this website will be based on the assumption that the author(s) of the work are EEA* nationals or the work is published in an EEA country.

There are exceptions of course. For example, works whose authors died before their work was published, or died before 1969 these may have shorter copyright periods. Crown copyright works also have different copyright periods. Unpublished work by non-EEA nationals will be subject to copyright laws in the author's own country.

If you are unsure about anything, please contact us for more information.

The Summary of Copyright Guidelines provides a quick reference of types of work, their copyright periods, applicable licences and copying permissions.

* The EEA stands for the European Economic Area and comprises the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and UK.

Transferring rights

Though the author/creator of the work is normally the first copyright owner, the creator may choose to assign the copyright to another individual. For example by selling the copyright to a publisher or a record company, or assigning the copyright to someone in a will or otherwise. Therefore, copyright may not necessarily be owned by the creator.

It must also be noted that in employment situations, the employer is the copyright owner of works created by the employee, unless an agreement exists that states otherwise.

Copyright is similar to physical property rights and can be bought, sold, inherited, assigned and licensed to third parties, either wholly or in part.

The author however would almost always retain moral rights to his/her work regardless of the copyright owner.

Moral Rights

Authors/creators of particular types of copyright work will have additional rights to their work. These are known as moral rights and they exist mainly to protect the reputation and the integrity of the authors and their work. Moral rights affect most literary, artistic, films and musical works and typically provide the author with the following rights:

  • The right to be identified as the author of the work when the work is published or performed.
  • The right to object to derogatory treatment of their work. This may include alteration, mutilation and having significant parts removed or added.
  • The right not to encounter false attribution of the work or to have work falsely attributed to them. (This right lasts for 20 years after the death of the author).

Unlike copyright moral rights are not automatic as the author must assert these rights in writing to gain moral rights. Additionally these rights may not be bought, sold or assigned to another individual. For example, if an author assigns the copyright to a publisher, the moral rights still remain with the author, even though he/she is no longer the copyright owner. The author however may relinquish their moral rights by writing if they wish to.

Moral rights generally last as long as the copyright period in a piece of work and similarly can be passed to the owner's estate upon death, until the moral rights period expires.

Material exempt from Moral Rights

Moral rights do not apply in certain situations, particularly if you are an employee and you create copyright material on behalf of your employer. The employee cannot gain moral rights to the material unless the employer has given permission.

Computer programs and computer generated work (where there is no human author) are also exempt from the ability to assert moral rights, as are other collective works of reference such as encyclopaedias and dictionaries.

Moral Rights and Privately Commissioned Photographs

Although copyright of photographs are normally held by the photographer, moral rights of privately commissioned photographs actually rest with the subject in the photograph. Thus, the photographer is prevented from publicising the photographs without first gaining the permission of the subject.

Student and staff ownership rights


Students will own the copyright in their work, unless there is a written agreement to transfer the copyright to the University during enrolment.


Copyright work created by all University staff is owned by the University, unless a contract is drawn up specifying alternative arrangements and is signed by both parties.

Consequences of Copyright Infringement

In instances where copyright infringement has occurred, the copyright owner can try and resolve the issue informally or may issue proceedings for breach of copyright.

As a result of the infringement the copyright owner may be entitled to the following:

  • Damages incurred for any losses experienced by the owner;
  • Injunction orders to prevent the infringer from making further use of the work;
  • Order the infringer to hand over all profits; and
  • Order the infringer to deliver all copies of the infringing work to the copyright owner.

Copyright infringement may result in criminal charges and in serious cases can result in imprisonment for individuals, so it is essential that you are aware of these copyright rules and that you do not breach them.

Individuals found to be breaching copyright laws may be subject to disciplinary action which may result in suspension or dismissal.