Skip to Main Content

The basics

What is copyright, what does it cover, how long does it last and what rights does it confer. 

What is copyright?

Copyright is “the exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.” It does not protect ideas, thoughts or facts. Copyright in the UK is governed by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, and subsequent amendments of this. Copyright is automatic, and a work does not have to be published to be protected. 

What does it cover and how long does it last?

The table below shows the main types of work covered by copyright, and how long it lasts for. 

Type of work  Duration of copyright 
Literary works (books, journal articles, poems, software, letters etc)  Expires 70 years after the author’s death (Unpublished works where the author died before 1969 and the works were unpublished before 1 August 1989 are copyright until the end of 2039). 
Dramatic works (plays, dance, mime)  Expires 70 years after the author’s death.
Musical works  Expires 70 years after the author’s death. 
Artistic works (paintings, drawings, diagrams, maps, engravings, sculptures, collages, photographs etc)  Expires 70 years after the author’s death.
Sound recordings  Expires 70 years from the end of the year in which it was first released.
Films  Expires 70 years after the death of the last living of the principal director, screenplay author and composer.
Broadcasts  Expires 50 years after first broadcast.
Typographical arrangement of published editions  Expires 25 years after it is first published.


Who owns copyright?

The author or creator of literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works is usually the first owner of any copyright. The owner of copyright of a sound recording is the record producer, and of a broadcast the broadcaster. The copyright owner of a published edition is the publisher.  

Where a work is made by an employee in the course of their employment, the owner of copyright is the employer, subject to any agreement to the contrary.  

What rights does copyright confer?

Copyright confers both economic and moral rights on the owner.  

Economic rights give the owner the right to make commercial gain from their work. The author has the right to authorize or prohibit the following: 

  • Reproduction (e.g. photocopying, scanning etc.) 
  • Distribution (e.g. sale in a bookshop) 
  • Rental and lending 
  • Public performance 
  • Communication to the public e.g. by broadcasting or putting on the internet 

Moral rights protect the author in other ways than purely economic rights. In the UK, the following moral rights are recognized: 

  • Right to attribution – the right to be recognized as the author of work. 
  • Right to object to derogatory treatment of a work – addition, deletion or adaptation that distorts or mutilates a work, or is prejudicial to the reputation of the author 
  • Right to object to false attribution i.e. being named as the author of a work you did not create.  

Are you looking for?