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What is copyright?

Copyright protects the physical expression of ideas. As soon as an idea is given physical form, e.g. a piece of writing, a photograph, music, a film, a web page, it is protected by copyright. There is no need for registration or to claim copyright in some way, protection is automatic at the point of creation. Both published and unpublished works are protected by copyright.

Copyright is normally owned by the creator(s) of the work, e.g. an author, composer, artist, photographer etc. If the work is created in the course of a person's employment, then the copyright holder is usually the employer.

Copyright is a property right and can be sold or transferred to others. Authors of articles in academic journals, for example, frequently transfer the copyright in those articles to the journal's publisher. It is important not to confuse ownership of a work with ownership of the copyright in it: a person may have acquired an original copyright work, e.g. a painting, letter or photograph, but unless the copyright in it has expressly also been transferred, it will remain with the creator.

Copyright is regulated by law, the main statute in the UK being the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA). This was amended in October 2003 by the Copyright and Related Rights Regulations 2003 which incorporated into UK law the changes required by the EU Copyright Directive.

VisitCopyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

Copyright law grants to copyright holders certain exclusive rights in relation to their works. They have the right to: copy a work, issue copies to the public, perform show or play it, make adaptations or translations. They also have the right to prevent: 

  • others communicating a work to the public by electronic transmission, e.g. broadcasting it or putting it on a website.
  • others making available to the public a recording of a performance by electronic transmission, e.g. putting it on a website.     

Copyright holder(s) may grant permission or license anyone else to do these things, without affecting their ownership of the actual copyright in their work, e.g. an author may permit a television adaptation of their book to be made and broadcast - the copyright in the original book remains with the author and they may grant other such rights to other people.

The law provides certain ways in which copyright works may be used without the need to first obtain permission from the copyright holder(s) - these include, fair dealing, library privilege, copying for examinations and copying for instruction. The University also holds a number of licences, e.g. CLA, NLA, ERA, which permit copyright works to be copied and used in various ways. Otherwise, written permission must first be obtained from a copyright holder before their work is used or copied. Infringing the rights of copyright holders may be a criminal offence and/or cause them to sue for damages.

As a result of certain international treaties and conventions, works produced in other countries have the same copyright protection in the UK as those created here.