What is copyright?

Copyright is an Intellectual Property Right (IPR). Copyright law gives the owner of a copyright various rights to control the way in which their work is used. These rights may extend beyond copying to include distribution, performance and other acts. Copyright law also makes some provision for the users of copyright work. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA) is the primary piece of IPR legislation in the UK. In the UK, copyright protection exists automatically; there is no need to register a work to record its ownership.

Why is copyright important?

Copyright is a legal right. Infringement in the UK can lead to both civil and criminal penalties (i.e. fines and custodial sentences). The only way to avoid such infringements is to act in accordance with the law, or in accordance with a private agreement with the copyright holder.

What types of work are protected by copyright?

A work must be recorded in some form to be subject to copyright. Original literary (written or printed), dramatic, musical and artistic works (including animations), sound recordings, films, broadcasts, and typographical arrangements (i.e. how a page or webpage is set out) are all subject to copyright protection. Works are protected whether they exist in print or electronic format.

Who owns copyright?

The initial owner of copyright is usually the person who creates the original work (generally known as the ‘author’). If a work is created in the course of employment, the copyright is owned by the employer unless there is an agreement to the contrary. If you want to reproduce a copyright work you usually have to get permission from the copyright owner.

What are moral rights?

These are rights which authors possess independently of copyright. There are three:

  • The right to not have their work treated in a derogatory way.
  • The right not to have works written by others attributed to them.
  • The right to be identified as the author of their own work.

The last of these does not apply in every case. To avoid infringing an author’s moral rights it is wise to make full and proper acknowledgement whenever you use any 3rd party material.

Copyright on the internet

Several copyrights can exist on a single webpage, even if there are no copyright statements of ownership. Unless the Terms of Use of the material permit re-use online, or you can rely on a legal exception or licence, then you should always contact the copyright owner for permission.


Some licence terms for academic environments have been drafted internationally which can be tailored specifically to particular types of content or circumstances. Lots of internet-based material is governed by the following licences:

  • Creative Commons: The copyright owner can choose the terms by which to licence their rights in a certain work to the public. See www.creativecommons.org
  • GNU Free Documentation Licence: This licence was designed for textbooks, instructional and other related academic material. The licence stipulates that any copy of the material, even if modified in some way, must exist on the same original licence terms (i.e. ‘sharing alike’).