UK copyright law

Fact sheet P-01: UK Copyright Law

Issued: April 2000
Last amended: 27th September 2017

The UK copyright law fact sheet outlines the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, the principal legislation covering intellectual property rights in the United Kingdom and the work to which it applies.

  1. Introduction  

    Copyright law originated in the United Kingdom from a concept of common law; the Statute of Anne 1709. It became statutory with the passing of the Copyright Act 1911. The current act is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  2. Rights covered

    The law gives the creators of literary, dramatic, musical, artistic works, sound recordings, broadcasts, films and typographical arrangement of published editions, rights to control the ways in which their material may be used.

    The rights cover; broadcast and public performance, copying, adapting, issuing, renting and lending copies to the public.

    In many cases, the creator will also have the right to be identified as the author and to object to distortions of his work.

    International conventions give protection in most countries, subject to national laws.

  3. Types of work protected
    1. Literary  

      song lyrics, manuscripts, manuals, computer programs, commercial documents, leaflets, newsletters & articles etc.

    2. Dramatic  

      plays, dance, etc.

    3. Musical  

      recordings and score.

    4. Artistic  

      photography, painting, sculptures, architecture, technical drawings/diagrams, maps, logos.

    5. Typographical arrangement of published editions

      magazines, periodicals, etc.

    6. Sound recording

      may be recordings of other copyright works, e.g. musical and literary.

    7. Film  

      video footage, films, broadcasts and cable programmes.

    The Copyright (Computer Programs) Regulations 1992 extended the rules covering literary works to include computer programs.

  4. When rights occur

    Copyright is an automatic right and arises whenever an individual or company creates a work. To qualify, a work should be regarded as original, and exhibit a degree of labour, skill or judgement.

    Interpretation is related to the independent creation rather than the idea behind the creation. For example, your idea for a book would not itself be protected, but the actual content of a book you write would be. In other words, someone else is still entitled to write their own book around the same idea, provided they do not directly copy or adapt yours to do so.

    Names, titles, short phrases and colours are not generally considered unique or substantial enough to be covered, but a creation, such as a logo, that combines these elements may be.

    In short, work that expresses an idea may be protected, but not the idea behind it.

  5. Who owns a piece of work

    Normally the individual or collective who authored the work will exclusively own the work and is referred to as the ‘first owner of copyright’ under the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act. However, if a work is produced as part of employment then the first owner will normally be the company that is the employer of the individual who created the work.

    Freelance or commissioned work will usually belong to the author of the work, unless there is an agreement to the contrary, (i.e. in a contract for service).

    Just like any other asset, copyright may be transferred or sold by the copyright owner to another party.

    Rights cannot be claimed for any part of a work which is a copy taken from a previous work. For example, in a piece of music featuring samples from a previous work, the copyright of the samples would still remain with the original author.

    Only the owner, or his exclusive licensee can bring proceedings in the courts.

  6. Duration of copyright

    The 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act states the duration of copyright as;

    1. For literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works

      70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies.*

      If the author is unknown, copyright will last for 70 years from end of the calendar year in which the work was created, although if it is made available to the public during that time, (by publication, authorised performance, broadcast, exhibition, etc.), then the duration will be 70 years from the end of the year that the work was first made available.

    2. Sound Recordings

      50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was created, or,

      if the work is released within that time: 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was first released.

    3. Films  

      70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last principal director, author or composer dies.*

      If the work is of unknown authorship: 70 years from end of the calendar year of creation, or if made available to the public in that time, 70 years from the end of the year the film was first made available.

    4. Typographical arrangement of published editions

      25 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was first published.

    5. Broadcasts and cable programmes

      50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the broadcast was made.

    6. Crown Copyright

      Crown copyright will exist in works made by an officer of the Crown, this includes items such as legislation and documents and reports produced by government bodies.

      Crown Copyright will last for a period of 125 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was made.

      If the work was commercially published within 75 years of the end of the calendar year in which it was made, Crown copyright will last for 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which it was published.

    7. Parliamentary Copyright

      Parliamentary Copyright will apply to work that is made by or under the direction or control of the House of Commons or the House of Lords and will last until 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was made.

    * In the case of work created on behalf of a company the duration is still linked to the individual person that created the work.
    Guidance issued by the UK Government states that “An employer should keep careful records of which person(s) created the work for them and any contractual agreements which were in force. The period of copyright protection will usually still be linked to the date of the death of the creator(s) - that is the employee(s).”

  7. Restricted acts

    It is an offence to perform any of the following acts without the consent of the owner:

    Copy the work.

    Rent, lend or issue copies of the work to the public.

    Perform, broadcast or show the work in public.

    Adapt the work.

    The author of a work, or a director of a film may also have certain moral rights:

    The right to be identified as the author.

    Right to object to derogatory treatment.

  8. Acts that are allowed

    Fair dealing is a term used to describe acts which are permitted to a certain degree without infringing the work, these acts are:

    • Private and research study purposes.
    • Performance, copies or lending for educational purposes.
    • Criticism and news reporting.
    • Incidental inclusion.
    • Copies and lending by librarians.
    • Caricature, parody or pastiche.
    • Acts for the purposes of royal commissions, statutory enquiries, judicial proceedings and parliamentary purposes.
    • Recording of broadcasts for the purposes of listening to or viewing at a more convenient time, this is known as time shifting.
    • Producing a back up copy for personal use of a computer program.
  9. Useful addresses

    Intellectual Property Office

    Concept House

    Cardiff Road


    South Wales

    NP10 8QQ

    Tel: 0300 300 2000

    PRS for Music

    29-33 Berners Street


    W1P 4AA

    Tel. (0207) 580 5544

    Copyright Licensing Agency

    Saffron House

    6-10 Kirby Street


    EC1N 8TS

    Tel. 020 7400 3100

  10. Further reading

    The full text for the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patent Act can be found at the OSPI (HMSO) website.

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