Copyright basics

What is copyright?

Copyright is a property right established in law. It grants a creator of an original work control over how it can be used for a period of time.

It protects:

  • Literary, dramatic, artistic or musical works
  • Sound recordings, broadcasts and films
  • Typographical arrangements of published editions

Copyright protects the expression of an idea as it is recorded, but not the idea itself. It arises automatically on creation – under UK law, it does not need to be registered.

The copyright symbol © is an internationally recognised indication that a work is protected. However, it is not essential and works created in the UK are still protected without it.

Copyright is part of a wider family of intellectual property rights which are granted to owners or creators of creative works. Others include: patents, trademarks, design rights, moral rights, database rights and performer rights.

Rights of the copyright owner

Copyright gives the owner the right to allow, or prevent others from:

  • Copying the work - this includes photocopying, scanning, recording, or downloading from the internet
  • Issuing copies of the work to the public i.e. publishing it either in print or electronically
  • Renting, or lending copies of the work to the public
  • Performing, showing, playing, or broadcasting the work to the public
  • Adapting the work, this includes making a translation

These economic rights can be transferred, bought and sold.

In addition the author of a copyright work has "moral rights" which always remain with the author and are distinct from copyright. They give the right to be identified as the author of the work and the right to object to derogatory treatment, or false attribution of the work.

Copyright is distinct from, but relates to, considerations of academic plagiarism.

See our Studying Effectively guidance on Avoiding Plagiarism and Referencing and Citing for help in acknowledging the sources you use.

UK Copyright law

Copyright law in the UK is based on the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. It has been amended and revised over time, most recently in 2014 following the Hargreaves Review.  

Overseas students should note that the law of different states creates different copyright rules. UK copyright law may be more restrictive than the rules that exist in your home country.

More information about UK copyright law is available from the Intellectual Property Office.


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