Accessibility statement

Copyright law explained

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 gives the author or creator the exclusive right to copy, adapt, communicate, lend or sell copies of the work, although this right can be sold or transferred.

Limited re-use of copyright material by a third party is permitted in exceptional circumstances, including some educational scenarios.

The CDPA 1988 protects an author or creator's economic interests, by providing a legal framework for deciding when and to what extent copyright has been infringed.

2014 amendments to the CDPA took account of developments in digital technology to extend the limits to scenarios in which material can be copied fairly, and go some way towards harmonising copyright legislation across the EU.

Core principles

Copyright is an automatic right which applies to a wide range of creative works in material form, giving creators of original works the right to control the use of their material by third parties, for a fixed period of time. (Protection of the original idea relies on Intellectual Property rights).

All these works are protected by copyright

  • Literary works - written, spoken or sung. Not only books, journals and newspaper articles, but also letters, poetry, computer programs, and more.
  • Published editions - the typographical arrangement of a literary work.
  • Databases - data or materials individually accessible and arranged in a systematic or methodical way, such as a library catalogue or a stock market report.
  • Artistic works - any original artistic material (irrespective of quality) available in a fixed format, such as photos, paintings, sculpture, buildings, maps and more.
  • Musical works - any original composition recorded in a permanent format. The lyrics are a literary work.
  • Dramatic works - the original non-spoken parts of a performance that are recorded in a physical format, such as choreography and stage directions. The script is a literary work.
  • Sound recordings - in any format. Those that are simply a direct copy of another recording are excluded.
  • Films - original footage in any medium, including celluloid, DVD and other digital formats.
  • Broadcasts - visual images, sounds or other information, transmitted for simultaneous viewing/listening by members of the public.

Copyright is a property right, so can be transferred or sold. The person who owns the copyright has the exclusive right to

  • Copy or reproduce - including electronic storage such as file downloads
  • Issue, rent or lend copies
  • Perform, show or play in public (this applies to literary, dramatic or musical works, sound recordings, films and broadcasts).
  • Communicate or transmit a copy - including putting material on the web, emailing or broadcasting it
  • Adapt material – including translation, or any kind of editing.

If you do any of the above acts without permission from the copyright owner, you may be infringing copyright. Dealing with infringing copies made by another party - by storing, distributing or selling them - is also a violation of copyright.

When the rights-holder is indeterminate or untraceable, copyright material becomes an orphan work. A 2014 amendment to the CDPA provides a framework for Licensing Orphan Works for copying or re-use.

Duration of copyright

Copyright protection starts as soon as a work is created, for a fixed term. Copyright in literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work usually extends until 70 years after the creator’s death. The UK Intellectual Property Office provides more information about copyright duration for work in other formats.

Unpublished works

Prior to the implementation of CDPA 1988, unpublished works remained protected by copyright in perpetuity. This protection was removed, with a 50-year transitional period, hence a work unpublished in 1988, whose creator was already dead, will remain in copyright until 2039.

Associated rights

In addition to copyright, creators of original works are also granted moral rights, to protect their reputation.

  • Attribution: the right to be identified as author, once asserted
  • Integrity: the right to object to derogatory treatment of work
  • The right not to have work falsely attributed
  • The right to privacy of personal/domestic films and photographs

The author can waive both the right to be identified and the right to object to derogatory treatment. However, unlike copyright, moral rights cannot be transferred to another person.

People who enact a work have a performer's right to be consulted about the recording of their performance or the use of any recording. Performers can choose whether to give their consent to making and distributing further copies.

The CDPA goes on to define the exceptional circumstances in which people can re-use copyright material without breaking the law.