Home › UK Rules › Business and Finance › Intellectual Property Law › Copyright
How Does Copyright Protect Your Work

The purpose of copyright is to protect work and stop others from using it without permission. So, understanding how copyright protects your work can help avoid cases of infringement. Copyright protection is automatic and free for certain types of work. There is no need to pay a fee or apply for a copyright license.

There is no register of copyright works in the United Kingdom. So, you get copyright protection ‘automatically’ anytime you create:

  • Broadcasts, film, and television recordings
  • Music and sound recordings
  • Original artistic, dramatic, literary, and musical work (includes illustration and photography)
  • Original non-literary written work (examples include software, web content and databases)
  • The layout of published editions of written, dramatic, and musical works

There are several ways to protect your work with markings. You can mark it with your name, the year of creation, and the copyright symbol ‘©’.

Here’s the magic part:

There is no legal requirement to mark your work with the copyright symbol. In fact, you would get the same level of copyright protection whether you marked it or not.

Copyright Protection Prevents People From:

  • Copying work.
  • Distributing copies of it (free or for sale).
  • Lending or renting out copies of the work.
  • Performing, playing, or showing the work in public.
  • Making an adaptation of copyrighted work.
  • Putting the material on the Internet.

Copyright Laws Overseas

International agreements on copyright in countries outside the United Kingdom may also protect your work. An example would be the ‘Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works’.

How Long Does Copyright Protection Last

Copyright protection begins at the same moment in time as the actual creation of any work. But, once a copyright expires, anyone has the legal right to use or copy the work.

Note: In most overseas countries, copyright protection for work would last at least 25 years for photographs and a minimum of life plus fifty (50) years for most types of written, dramatic, and artistic works. It varies for other types of work.

The exact length of copyright depends on the type of work and how long ago it was created:

  • Broadcasts: Copyright usually lasts 50 years from its first broadcast.
  • Films: Copyright usually lasts 70 years after the death of the director, screenplay author and composer.
  • Layout of published editions of written, dramatic or musical works: Copyright usually lasts 25 years from its first publishing.
  • Sound and music recording: Copyright usually lasts 70 years from when it first gets published.
  • Written, dramatic, musical and artistic work: Copyright usually lasts 70 years after the death of the author.

You can contact the Intellectual Property Office UK information centre with questions about an older work (or on international copyright).

IPO Information Centre
Email: [email protected]
Telephone: 0300 300 2000
Fax: 01633 817777
Monday to Friday: 9am to 5pm
Charges from landline or mobile.

License, Sell, or Market Copyright Material

Owning a copyright gives you the option to license the use of your work. You can also make the decisions on how others use it after licencing your work.

You can also choose to register it with a licensing body. The roles of licensing bodies and collective management organisations is to agree licences with users and collect any royalties due to the owners.

Selling or Transferring Your Copyright

You would need to write (and sign) an ‘assignment’ to sell or transfer your copyright. The assignment document verifies that a sale or a transfer actually occurred.

The video [1:05 seconds] provides further information on IP basics and the merits of licencing or franchising your intellectual property.

Note: UK inheritance laws allow the full transfer of a copyright after death. It would remain valid while the work remains in copyright.

Waiving Your Moral Rights

You can choose to keep or to waive your ‘moral rights’. In simple terms, they include the right to:

  • Be identified as the genuine author of your work.
  • Object to how others present your work. An example would be a situation where you feel it is a ‘derogatory’ presentation or it damages your reputation).
  • Object to changes others make to your work.

Performers’ Rights

As a performer you would have rights in your performances that would be separate to copyright. For example:

Suppose you are an actor in a play. In this example, you may have certain ‘economic rights’ in any recordings or broadcasts of their performance. This may apply even if they sell the copyright to a third party.

How to Stop People Using Your Work

As the owner of the work, you would have the responsibility to defend your intellectual property against cases of infringement.

But, be aware that some people, or certain organisations, may be able to use copyright work without the owner’s permission (see below). Typical examples include libraries and some schools.

So, you should always check whether the use of your work by another person or organisation is permitted before you try to stop them using it.

The Orphan Works Register

What if you think someone else is using your work and they are unaware that you own the rights? If this happens, the person or organisation must apply for a licence to use a work covered by copyright. It is the correct procedure to follow if the identity of the rights holder is unknown.

You can check the orphan works register online to find out if anyone has already applied, or is applying, to license your work.

If you discover that your work is in fact on the register, you would be able to:

  • Apply to stop the application process made by someone else.
  • Claim the licence fee paid by the applicant (if they already issued a licence to them).

Disputes about Copyright Licensing

A collecting society would be able to contact the Copyright Tribunal and act as an agent. The role of the tribunal is to resolve commercial licensing disputes between copyright owners and people who use their material.

Copyright Tribunal
Email: [email protected]
Telephone: 0207 034 2836
Fax: 0207 034 2826
Monday to Friday: 9am to 5pm

The Secretary
Copyright Tribunal
4 Abbey Orchard Street

Get Help with Copyright Law

The IPO Information Centre (details above) offers general advice about copyright law in the UK. You can also get advice on certain legal issues from an intellectual property (IP) professional.

Related Links:

Intellectual property and your work
Patents, trade marks, copyright and designs
Getting permission to use someone’s intellectual property

There is another way to get more guidance about an area of copyright law. You can ask the Intellectual Property Office to publish specific guidance.

In some cases, they will publish a public ‘copyright notice’ if the question highlights a gap in general procedures of copyright guidance.

Check if You Need a Licence to Copy a Creative Work

You need permission from the owner of a creative work before you copy it (e.g. a diary, film, music, or a photograph).

So, what if you do not know who the owner is? In this case, you may need to get an ‘orphan works licence’ before you copy the work.

The steps you should follow, include:

  1. Checking whether copyright covers the work (you would not need a licence to copy it if not).
  2. Reading through the details of the exceptions to copyright allowing limited use without the permission of the copyright owner.
  3. Checking to see if the EU Orphan Works Directive covers the work (if so, no licence is required).
  4. Carrying out a diligent search to try and find out who owns the work that you want to copy (e.g. film and sound work, literary, or still visual art).
  5. Getting permission (e.g. applying for a licence) to copy a creative work when you cannot find the right holder. Read the orphan works licence guidance for further details.

How Copyright Protects Your Work in United Kingdom