What is copyright?

An introduction to copyright.

Intellectual property rights grant creators or owners of a work certain controls over its use. Some rights require registration (eg patents), while others accrue automatically upon the work's creation (eg copyright). Copyright is an intellectual property right which covers the expression of an idea rather than the idea itself.  It exists to protect the economic and moral interests of people who create intellectual, literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works.

In the United Kingdom, copyright is governed by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA). The CDPA is a legislative framework that enables content creators to exploit their own work in economic terms and applies restrictions that aim to allow for fair and reasonable reproduction, re-interpretation and dissemination of their work.

Copyright is automatic in that there is no registration procedure required by the originator of a work to assert copyright. Indeed, copyright exists whether or not the copyright symbol '©' is used. Many creators assign copyright to others, perhaps most commonly to publishers.


What is covered by copyright and how long does it last?

Original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works

What does this include?

  • Literary works typically take the form of books and journals, but also include tables, computer programs and databases.
  • Dramatic works commonly include the text of plays, but also encompass such things as the choreography of dance.
  • Artistic works include graphic works (painting, drawing, diagram, map, chart, plan, engraving, etching, lithograph, woodcut), photographs, sculptures, collages, architecture and craftsmanship.

How long does copyright last?

Generally speaking, copyright expires in literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author dies.

Sound recordings, films, television and radio broadcasts, and cable programmes

What does this include?

  • Sound recordings are a recording from which certain sounds may be reproduced. This may include a recording of the whole or any part of a literary, dramatic or musical work.
  • Films are understood to be a recording on any medium from which moving image can be produced. This broad definition includes the common examples such as feature films or documentaries. Films typically include different composite elements that make up the whole work, for example, soundtracks, scripts, images and other copyright works.
  • Broadcasts are a combination of elements that could include moving images, sounds and other information, that are transmitted in an audio or visual form and typically at a particular time. The most common examples would be television and radio programmes. 

How long does the copyright last?

Copyright duration is different for sound recordings, films, broadcasts, and cable programmes:

  • Copyright on sound recordings, broadcasts, and cable programmes lasts 50 years from the year in which they were originally made, first released, or broadcast.
  • Films are protected for 70 years following the death of the last to die of the author of the screenplay, the composer of the accompanying musical score, or the director of the film.

Typographical arrangement of published editions

What does this include?

Typographical arrangement is the layout, or, presentation of a work. So, even though a text may be considered out of copyright, the layout produced by a publisher for a particular edition receives copyright protection.

How long does the copyright last?

Typographical arrangement of published works is protected for 25 years from the year of publication.

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