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What is Copyright?

To answer one of the most common asked questions, "What is copyright meaning?", we should clarify Copyright is one of the main types of intellectual property. It allows the copyright owner to protect against others copying or reproducing their work.

Intellectual property gives a person ownership over the things they create, the same way as something physical can be owned. The main legislation dealing with copyright in the United Kingdom is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988

Copyright arises automatically when a work that qualifies for protection is created. The work must be original, meaning it needs to originate with the author, who will have used some judgement or skill in its creation.

The main works currently protected by copyright in the UK include:

  • Original literary works (such as novels, poems, tables, lists, and computer programmes)
  • Original dramatic works
  • Original musical works (i.e. the musical notes themselves)
  • Original artistic works
  • Sound recordings
  • Films
  • Broadcasts
  • Typographical arrangements (i.e. the layout or actual appearance) of published editions

In general, the author or creator of the work owns the copyright. However, Copyright for work created by an employee during the course of their employment is owned by the employer.

What is copyright infringement?

Using Works When You Don't Own the Copyright 

Primary copyright infringement occurs when a person carries out any of the following on a substantial part of a copyright-protected work without the consent or authorisation of the copyright owner:

  • Copying it
  • Issuing copies of it to the public
  • Renting or lending it to the public
  • Performing or showing it to the public
  • Communicating it to the public

Definitions of what constitutes a ‘substantial’ part of a work can be subjective. In some cases, a four-word extract has been considered substantial. A rule followed by many is if something is worth copying, it is protected by copyright.

Secondary infringement may occur if someone carries out any of the following acts without permission from the copyright owner:

  • Importing an infringing copy
  • Possessing or dealing with an infringing copy
  • Providing the means for making an infringing copy

If you or your organisation needs to use or distribute protected work, a CLA licence lets you legally copy content.

To learn more about copyright infringement read our blog "Copyright Infringement Vs Plagiarism"

What can happen if someone infringes copyright?

Infringing copyright is illegal for companies and individuals.  A person commits an offence if they knew or had reason to believe they were conducting any of these acts or their actions would constitute infringement.  A copyright owner can obtain these remedies in a civil action for infringement:

  • An injunction to prohibit further infringement
  • Damages for loss
  • An account of the infringer’s profit
  • An order requiring the infringer to deliver all offending articles, or the right to seize such copies

Certain acts committed without a copyright owner’s consent may be classed as criminal offences and may result in fines and/or imprisonment.

Are there any exceptions to copyright?

There are a number of specified exceptions in UK law which permit copying in certain circumstances (for instance, use in judicial proceedings) or for certain categories of people (for example, the visually impaired).

Another group of exceptions falls into the scope of ‘fair dealing’. This includes material reproduced for the purposes of non-commercial research or private study, for criticism or review or for the reporting of current events. This material must be genuinely and fairly used for these purposes and accompanied by sufficient acknowledgement.

The UK Intellectual Property Office’s website contains a wealth of up-to-date information on copyright exceptions and other types of IP.   

How to legally copy copyright material

If you want to use copyright material in the ways described above, you’ll need permission from each owner every time. There are no industry-fixed fees, so the cost of this can vary a lot as well as it being time-consuming.

Buying a licence from us means you don’t need permission from the owners directly. When you tell us what you’ve copied, we distribute royalties to the content creators so they receive a fair payment for their work.

The CLA offers copyright licences for businesses, education institutions and public sector organisations.

We recommend you reduce the risk of infringement in your workplace by enquiring about a licence today.


A photographer about to take a photo, which is automatically protected by copyright


Copyright Information for Copyright Owners

Do I need to register for copyright in the UK?

In the UK, there is no need to register a copyright. An idea is automatically protected when it is committed to paper or another fixed form. Copyright provides redress against others copying a work, not borrowing an idea or creating something similar.

What rights does copyright give?

As the author or creator of the work, you have economic and moral rights over it and its use.

Economic rights mean only the copyright owner can do or authorise certain acts. These include the right to copy the work, distribute copies of it, rent or lend it, perform or show it, communicate it to the public (including online), or adapt it (for example, a book adapted into a play). Economic rights may be licensed or assigned to another, just like other forms of property.

Moral rights include the right to be identified (or not identified) as the author, not to have work they didn’t create falsely attributed to them, and to object to derogatory treatment of the work. The author owns the moral rights regardless of who owns the economic rights to the work. They can be waived, but not licensed or assigned.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright duration depends on the work involved.

For literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works it’s 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author dies (for multiple authors, it will be 70 years from the death of the last remaining author).

For typographical arrangements (i.e. layout or appearance of the printed article), the duration is 25 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was first published with that layout/appearance.

While the underlying work itself might be out of Copyright if a new edition is set and printed or additional text such as an introduction is added these new elements will attract copyright protection.


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