top of page

What is copyright?

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

lady biting her pencil and looking at a laptop screen. copyright.

What is copyright?

Copyright is one of the four areas of intellectual property:

- Patents: how something works

- Designs what something looks like

- Trademarks: what you call it, and

- Copyright: the expression (literary, artistic etc)

Sometimes a single item can be covered by all four elements. For example, a new lock mechanism could be covered by a patent for the mechanism, by a design for the appearance given to the outside, by a trade mark for a logo and by copyright for the installation instructions.

Copyright is a legal right, which protects the copyright owner and/or the creator of a work. Copyright gives the owner control over their work and now it is used. Normally, copyright protects a work created by an author. Owners of copyright can use, sell or license a work (to a third party). The work must have some skill, labour or judgement in the creation, as well as being original.

What does copyright protect?

The types of work protected by copyright are vast and varied. They include: books, novels, technical reports, manuals, paintings, sculptures, photographs, music, songs, dramatic works, films, television, and radio broadcasts, engineering, technical plans, promotional literature, advertising, computer software and databases. The copyright in each type of work exists independently. For example, a song recorded on an audio CD may be protected by more than one type of copyright, with the score protected as a musical work and the accompanying lyrics as a literary work. In addition, the sounds recorded on the CD capturing the performance of the song may be copyright-protected as a sound recording.

How long does copyright last?

In the UK copyright protection for published works can last up to 70 years after the author’s death. However, the duration of copyright differs depending on the type of work and whether it is published or unpublished. After copyright expires, the work is in the public domain. The below table is a general guide, but some durations may be different, depending on a variety of circumstances.

Copyright on unpublished works is more complex. All unpublished works are in copyright until 1 January 2040. For more on this see:, schedule 1c, section 12(3)b.

Who owns copyright?

The first owner of copyright will normally be the author. In most cases, the author is the person who created the work: the composer of the text or the music, the artist, the photographer. There are certain exceptions to this, especially in the case of photographs, films and recorded sound. There may be more than one copyright owner in a single work, for example a band who collaborates on writing a piece of music. An employer is normally the first owner of copyright in any work which is made in the course of an author's employment under a contract of service (that is, as an employee rather than a freelance). For commissioned work however, the copyright usually lies with person who has been commissioned (rather than the commissioner), unless there is an agreement in place to the contrary. It’s therefore important when commissioning work to put an agreement in place first covering the intellectual property.

How to protect your copyright works

Copyright protection is different to other forms of intellectual property. It is an automatic right and does not need to be registered. Therefore, there are no forms to complete and no fees to pay. Once a work is created the copyright is automatic. It is good practice to mark your work with the copyright symbol, your name and the date it was created – e.g. © [your name] 2015

If you wish to, you should create a record of the date of creation by either emailing yourself a copy or, if not possible, sending yourself a copy by registered post and leaving the envelope unopened.

It is up to you to make sure that your copyright is not breached. Policing your copyright will stop others from copying, adapting, and publishing, renting, performing, or broadcasting your work. If you choose to licence your work you need to make sure there is a contract which clearly states the conditions of use. A good contract in the beginning will minimise the chances of legal problems in the future.

Copyright Exceptions

There are some exceptions to UK copyright law, allowing copies to lawfully be made for certain purposes, these include:

o Limited copying of books, journals, sound recordings, films and artistic works made by an individual for their own private study or non-commercial research purposes, may fall under the fair dealing exception

o Fair dealing for criticism, review and reporting current events

o Making a copy for a disabled person if no accessible version is commercially available

o Time-shifting of radio or TV broadcasts for personal use

o Text and data mining for non-commercial research

o Teaching

o Parody, caricature and pastiche

Related rights

Moral rights

Copyright creators also have non-economic rights - known as moral rights. The moral rights recognised in the UK are the right of integrity, i.e. to object to derogatory treatment, the right of attribution of authorship (which includes the director of a film), the right against false attribution of authorship and the right of privacy of a person who commissions certain photographs or films. Moral rights exist for the same duration as copyright.

Database rights

An electronic database may be protected by copyright and database rights. Copyright will cover the originality within a database. Database rights will cover a collection of copyrighted works. Permission must have been obtained from the copyright holders for the use of their work. Database rights are automatic and have no registration forms or fees and give the owner total control over their work. You can use, sell or lease it to a third party. Database rights last for 15 years from creation, but if published during this time the term is 15 years from publication.

Publication rights

Publication rights give control to the person who publishes for the first time a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work or a film in which copyright has expired. Publication rights last for 25 years from the publication of the previously unpublished work.

If you need more help you can visits the Business & IP Centre Northamptonshire or contact The Intellectual Property Office: The IPO is the official government body responsible for granting Intellectual Property rights in the United Kingdom. Can be contacted by phone - 0300 300 2000 or by email. You can take a look at their web page.

At the Business & IP Centre Northamptonshire we also run a host of workshops designed to demystify UK copyright law. Within our workshops our experts demonstrate not only the importance of protecting your own work but ensuring you do not infringe the copyright of others, which can be a costly mistake. Visit our intellectual property page for more information on a patents and to book a one-to-one session.

This article first appeared on the British Library’s Business & IP Centre website. View here.

Recent Posts

See All


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page