Introduction to Copyright

Copyright gives creators the freedom to decide what happens to their creations. You may use someone else’s work only if you have their permission by the copyright owner or if the law allows it.

Copyright can seem complicated but at its heart it’s not. It’s simply a law which says that if you create something, then you own it. And as the owner you get to decide what happens to it.

So if you’re a creator copyright automatically applies to, and protects, all your creative work. That means you are free to decide how other people can use your work, and means they need to ask your permission before using your work. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a “professional” or not, the law’s the same for everyone.

What does copyright protect?

The law in the UK defines the things which copyright automatically applies to.

Original works, for example writing, music, drama, art and photography, are protected by copyright. Films, sound recordings, typographical arrangements and broadcasts are also covered as long as they are not copied from a previous work of the same kind.

To receive copyright protection in the UK a literary, music or dramatic work must be recorded in writing or otherwise. Here are some examples (the list is not exhaustive) of original works that are copyright protected:

Literary works – novels, song lyrics, newspaper articles, user manuals and exam papers

Dramatic works – ballet, plays and mime

Musical works – recorded original songs, advert or film soundtracks or instrumental music

Artistic works – paintings, drawings, engravings, photographs, sculptures, maps, diagrams, architecture and craftwork

Film – any moving image that can be reproduced, for example, cinema films, home videos or DVDs of television programmes

Typographical arrangements – a published edition of a literary, musical or dramatic work, for example a magazine design styling, film poster or book cover.

Broadcasts – transmitted images sounds or information that can be received by members of the public

Sound recordings – recordings of sounds that can be reproduced regardless of what they are made on (CD, MP3 or vinyl).

More about copyright

Copyright belongs to the person who created an original work. If they create something as part of their job, it belongs to their employer. The owner of copyright can transfer it to someone else if they want, or they can give someone permission to use the work without giving away the ownership. When permission is granted for usage of a work it’s often referred to as a licence. The Licences and rights section explains more.

To avoid infringing copyright law, you need permission before you use someone else’s work, or the use you’re making needs to be covered by a legal exception. The technology that The Copyright Hub is working on aims to make the process of asking, and getting, permission dramatically easier and increasingly automated.

When permission is granted there will usually be various conditions the user needs to agree to. These might include a fee which ensures the creator gets paid for their work, as well as other conditions about how and where it can be used, limits on use and the way it must be acknowledged.

Very often, creators want someone else to manage their work, and permissions on their behalf. If you are a creator, copyright owner or a user of copyright works, you may find it useful to get in touch with a copyright organisation to help you manage your work, get paid or get the permission you need.

Copyright exists in most countries and while the law varies around the world the same general principles apply in most territories. There are international copyright agreements to provide protection for authors and creators while allowing their work to be translated, produced and enjoyed by audiences worldwide.

Copyright is also important in education. In their day-to-day work, teachers, lecturers and other academic staff use a wide range of creative resources – such as books, newspapers, websites, TV programmes, films and music.

Copyright law applies to the work you create and use no matter what age you are.

There are some exceptions to copyright defined in the law that allow you to use a work for some educational or private uses, amongst others, without getting permission first. Some new exceptions have recently been created in UK law. You will find a useful list of exceptions in “What the Law says”.

Want to know more?