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Basic Information on Copyright

What is copyright?

Copyright legislation is intended to protect the economic interests of authors, creators and publishers by preventing others from exploiting their hard work and investment. Copyright subsists automatically in all creative works of sufficient originality as soon as they are recorded in a material form and does not need to be registered. There is no distinction between the print and digital realms, so aside from material in which copyright has expired or been waived, most text, images, recordings and videos found online will be protected by copyright and not free to copy unless specified.

The first owner of copyright in a work of original intellectual creation is the individual who creates the work, unless it was created by an employee in the course of employment (in which case the employer automatically owns the work). Copyright can be assigned in writing, e.g. via an author’s contract with a publisher, or a musician’s contract with a recording company. Academic authors should always check the terms of publishing contracts carefully to make sure that you do not unknowingly sign away all of your rights to your work, which you may wish to later share online (e.g. via a digital repository).

What rights does a copyright owner have?

Copyright law gives the copyright owner exclusive rights to:

  • copy the work (reproduction right)
  • issue copies of work to the public (distribution right)
  • rent or lend the work to the public (rental right)
  • perform, show or play the work in public (performance right)
  • communicate the work to the public (e.g. by putting it online)
  • make an adaptation of the work
  • authorise others to undertake any of these activities

Doing any of these acts without the copyright holder's permission is usually an infringement of their copyright. However, there are circumstances where you can carry out these acts without direct permission - see How can I use copyright works 

Copyright works can also be protected by moral rights and performers’ rights. Moral rights generally last as long as the copyright and give the author/creator the right to be named as the author/creator of the work (‘attribution’ right) and to object to derogatory treatment of their work (‘integrity’ right). The rights in performances provide performers with some control over recordings, broadcasts and copies of a live performance.

Duration of copyright

As a general rule, copyright in literary, dramatic, artistic and musical works lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. For example, a work first published in 1960 by an author who died in 2015 would be protected until the end of 2085 – whereas a work first published in 1965 by an author who died later that year would be protected only until the end of 2035. After copyright expires, the work is said to enter the ‘public domain’. It’s important to note that this term refers specifically to material that is not protected by copyright; not to any material that happens to be publicly accessible (e.g. online), much of which will not enter the public domain for a very long time.

There are some exceptions to this standard term of protection, notably for works of unknown authorship, some older unpublished works and Crown and Parliamentary copyright. The National Archives provide a flow chart detailing the duration of copyright protection for literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works (and a second chart for Crown copyright material). Note that the separate copyright in an original typographical layout expires at the end of the 25th year after first publication of that edition.

How can I use copyright works?

You can use other people's copyright-protected work only under these circumstances:

  1. If copyright in the work has expired (the work has entered the public domain)
  2. With the express permission of the copyright holder (see permission guidance notes)
  3. Under the terms of a licence agreement. The University holds licences allowing staff and students to make certain uses that would otherwise require permission from copyright holders. Carrying out such acts is subject to abidance by the conditions of the licence:
    • CLA licence - for the photocopying and scanning of print material
    • NLA licence - for the photocopying and restricted electronic use of newspaper articles
    • ERA licence - for the recording of broadcasts from specific channels
    • Open University licence - for the recording of broadcasts from the Open University
    • PRS licence - for the performance of live music on University premises (restricted to designated areas within the University - please contact Copyright & Compliance Officer for further details)
    • PPL licence - for the playing and performance of commercial music (restricted to designated areas within the University - please contact Copyright & Compliance Officer for further details).
  4. Under legislative exceptions to the exclusive rights of copyright owners, permitting limited use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. When applicable, these exceptions allow you to use extracts from protected works in without having to seek permission or purchase a licence.

Exceptions to UK Copyright Law for Educational Purposes

The exceptions to copyright law are defences rather than rights (they do not provide immunity from claims of infringement and their application is a matter of interpretation) but some are useful for education, allowing use of published works without the explicit permission of the copyright owner in the following ways:

  • In teaching: copying work in the course of instruction (e.g. displaying on a whiteboard / projection screen) as long as sufficient acknowledgement is given; performing, playing or showing works for the purposes of instruction to a class of students
  • In examinations: reproducing passages of text /quotations / images and so on with sufficient acknowledgement for the purposes of setting (and answering) exam questions
  • In non-commercial research or private study: this use must be 'fair' which is based on factors such as amount taken, motive for the use and the consequences of using the work. Sufficient acknowledgement must be given when any work that is not your own is used. Generally, short quotations in student work fall under this exception
  • In criticism, review or quotation: similar to above, the use must be 'fair' but can apply in commercial contexts.

For more information, see the section on Teaching, Learning and Assessment if you are involved in teaching, and the section on Research if you are involved in research either as an academic or a student.


Things to do now

Check out the section on

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Check out the section on Research

Contact the Copyright & Compliance Officer