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What is Copyright ?

Copyright is one of the intellectual property rights that protects all original, creative outputs of the human mind once fixed in a tangible form. Other intellectual property rights are patents, trademarks, design rights, moral rights, database rights and performer rights.

What types of materials are protected by copyright?

Copyright is a form of property which comes into existence with the creation of its subject matter and unlike patents, designs and trademarks – registration is not required for protection.

  • Literary works – books, novels, journal articles, poems, song lyrics, newspaper articles, user manuals, software, databases, exam papers
  • Dramatic works – opera, ballet, screen plays, mime
  • Musical works – musical scores but not the lyrics which are considered literary works
  • Artistic works – paintings, drawings, engravings, photographs, sculptures, maps, diagrams, architecture and craftwork
  • Film – any moving image that can be reproduced, for example, cinema films, home videos or DVDs of television programmes
  • Typographical arrangements – a published edition of a literary, musical or dramatic work, for example a magazine design styling, film poster or book cover.
  • Broadcasts – transmitted images sound or information that can be received by members of the public
  • Sound recordings - recorded original songs, advert or film soundtracks, instrumental music

Ownership and transfer of copyright

The author of a work is the first owner of any copyright in it. Where a literary, dramatic or artistic work is made by an employee in the course of his employment, his employer is the first owner of any copyright in the work subject to any agreement to the contrary.

In general, in academia, universities waive copyright in certain kinds of publications written by staff.

Copyright ownership can be transferred through assignment or licensing.

Rights of the copyright owner

Copyright grants the following economic rights to the owner:

  • Reproduction - copying the work in any way (photocopying, scanning, recording or downloading)
  • Distribution - issuing copies of the work to the public in print or electronically
  • Rental and lending of the work to the public
  • Public performance – performing, showing, playing or broadcasting a work to the public
  • Adaptation – making of an adaptation of a work

What are Related rights?

Related rights are rights that arise alongside copyright of a new work but they do not always belong to the author of the work. 

  • Moral rights – are protecting the reputation of the author and their intellectual and emotional investment. These are the right to be credited as the author of a work and the right to object to derogatory treatment of their work. 
  • Database right – rights that arise in the selection and presentation of data in a database whether electronic or not.
  • Performance rights - the rights of performers, singers, dancers or actors in a work

Duration of copyright

Copyright expires after a set period of time or ‘duration’, after which there are no restrictions on the use of the copyright work. When copyright expires the work is said to pass into the ‘public domain’. There are many different durations of copyright depending on the type of work but the most relevant are:

  • published literary, artistic, musical or dramatic works – 70 years from the end of the year when the author died
  • typographical arrangements – 25 years from publication
  • crown copyright (UK Government) – usually 50 years after creation or publication
  • sound recordings - 70 years from date of creation or release
  • film - 70 years from death of the last surviving key contributors (writer, director or soundtrack author)
  • unpublished literary, artistic, musical or dramatic works – either 70 years following the death of the author or until 31 December 2039 (whichever is later)


Video: Building blocks of UK Copyright
This video explains what copyright means, what it protects, how long that protection lasts in the UK, and how it protects the rights of creators


Copyright is infringed when any of the economic rights granted exclusively to the copyright owner are carried out by a third party without permission. 

Video: Building blocks of UK Copyright: Using, Resuing, & Infringement
This video in the Building Blocks of UK Copyright series, looks at copyright infringement, what it means, and how to avoid it.

Further Resources

Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988



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This material is for general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice. For further information please contact: