Copyright Basics

Copyright is one of a range of intellectual property rights which enables the rights owner to exploit certain types of creative work and control their use for a limited period of time.

Sources of copyright law

In the UK the main source of copyright law is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA), together with associated regulations. The Act has been amended several times since it was passed by Parliament, so it is important that you consult the most up to date version. Contract law in the form of licence agreements is also important.


  • What works are protected?

    Works are protected if they are:

    • of the relevant type;
      • literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works
      • sound recordings, films or broadcasts
      • typographical arrangements of published editions
    • in recorded format;
      • eg print, writing, sound recording
    • original;
      • created with skill, knowledge taste or judgement. 

    Copyright subsists automatically when a qualifying work is created, but many people use the copyright symbol to make the status clear:

    © Joe Bloggs, 2012

  • Who owns the copyright?
  • How long does copyright last?
  • What control does the owner have?

    In relation to the whole or a substantial part of the work, the rights owner has the exclusive right to:

    • Copy
    • Issue copies to public
    • Rent or lend to public
    • Perform or show to public
    • Communicate to public
    • Make an adaptation of work

    Insubstantial or substantial have not been defined in legislation, but the matter has been considered by the courts who have indicated that both quantity and quality would be important considerations.  The following would be considered substantial:

    • 4 lines out of 32 line poem
    • A few notes if principal theme of a piece of music
    • A couple of sentences if book’s main theme
    • Film – substantial part of any image, eg whole still

     Thus anything more than trivial extracts would probably be protected.

  • Additional moral rights

    These exist alongside copyright and cannot be waived or assigned to others:

    • Paternity right: the right to be identified as the author
    • Integrity right: the right to object to derogatory treatment of your work
    • False attribution right: the right not to have your work falsely attributed to another
  • What copying is permitted?

    You may not copy the whole or a substantial part of a copyright work unless:

    • You have the owner’s permission


    • The copying you want to do is permitted by an exemption in the CDPA

    The owner’s permission may be given by licence or by seeking express permission.  You can read more about licences on Copying for teaching and Copying for learning and research.

  • Exceptions for learning and teaching in education

    The CDPA offers a range of exemptions relevant to education:

    • Fair dealing for;
      • Research for a non-commercial purpose or private study
      • Illustration for instruction
      • Quotation
      • Criticism and review
    • Text and data mining

    You can find out more about copying in education on our pages for Copying for teaching and Copying for learning and research.