This is the first of a two-part blog post about copyright. It introduces how it affects your day-to-day work as a student, academic, researcher, clerical officer (in fact, really any occupation).

Part One covers the basic concepts behind copyright. There’s a lot of info here, but we’ve split it up into common questions, to help break it down.

Edit: See Part Two for some practical examples and the application of copyright in education.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a legal right protecting your physically-expressed ideas. In 1988, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act came into legislation within the UK. It has received a number of updates since then, most recently (at time of writing) in 2014. This legislation is a framework or a set of rules on how your work can be used by others, and it contains owners’ rights as well as the responsibilities of others using the works. Copyright is considered an exclusive right, given to the work’s creator, by which they allow others to use their work for specified amounts of time.

A number of international copyright treaties exist, which influence the law within the EU and in many other countries worldwide:

  • Berne Convention (1886, revised multiple times since) – establishes minimum standards of protection, including types of works, copyright duration and the concept of automatic protection.
  • WIPO Copyright Treaty (1996) – adds clarification of digital works that are protected, such as computer programs, and that copyright conventions also apply to transmission of works via the internet.
  • TRIPS, or the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (1996) – describes the enforcement of copyright law internationally.
  • Marrakesh Treaty (2013) – adds provision to allow reproduction of copyrighted works in formats that are accessible to people who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise “print disabled”.

Article 13 is a further update to copyright legislation and is currently being debated to reflect digital technologies and online sharing. This will be EU-wide and, at time of writing, is not yet finalised.

What does it cover?

Essentially, anything that has been created – art, music, literature, photos, video, computer programming code. Qualifying “works” need to be original and tangible:

  • Original means the work is a product of your own skill/labour and/or intellectual creation, not just a copy of someone else’s work.
  • Tangible means it has to be physical, not just an idea or thought. It has to be an idea which has become physical, i.e., composing a song in your head isn’t protected, but if you write it down, type up lyrics or record it, it becomes protected.

What does it mean to me?

By today’s laws, if a work is to be “copied”, i.e. reproduced in some tangible form, and if that work still falls under copyright, then express written permission of the copyright holder must be obtained. Otherwise, they are entitled to sue for your unauthorised use of the work. This written permission is also referred to as a licence, and it may include specific conditions of use. The licence may be provided for free, for a financial sum, or not at all, at the behest of the copyright holder.

The above applies to the vast majority of images, text and other materials downloaded from the internet – most of what you see is covered by copyright, and using it without permission risks litigation.

Why was copyright legislation necessary?

Period line drawing of workers at a printing press.

Copyright as an idea came into being around the 1400s and 1500s in Europe because of the printing press. This invention made the reproduction of written works cheaper and faster to produce. At that time, anyone could buy or rent a printing press and reproduce popular works with no recompense to the author. (It’s worth noting that one advantage of such widespread and affordable literature was the increase in learning of reading and writing.)

When and how does copyright occur?

Once you create a work, it is protected by copyright automatically. Copyright differs from trademarks or patents, as these need to be registered. Additionally, not every creative work is protected by copyright, however it may still be covered under Intellectual Property (IP).

Duration of copyright

Prior to the 1988 Act, in the UK copyright lasted 50 years from the moment work was created. Since the 1988 Act, copyright protects works from the moment of creation until 70 years after the death of the creator. Check the date of the materials you use.

After the copyright term has ended, the work enters the public domainsee below.

Where in the world does copyright apply?

Each country has slightly different copyright law and practices vary. In most cases however, copyright applies to works that are used within that country, regardless of where the author lives, or where the work was first published. To put it another way, the copyright protection afforded to a work depends on the national laws of the country in which the author seeks protection.

For example…

Say someone took a photograph in Afghanistan in 1940, and they died in 1968. At time of writing this blog post, the duration of copyright in Afghanistan is 50 years after the death of the author. In 2019 in the UK (51 years later), you wish to publish the photo in a journal article.

If you were in Afghanistan, you could basically do what you wish with the photo, as it has likely entered the public domain. However in the UK, the author’s estate can still claim copyright infringement for its use until 2038 (70 years after the author’s death). Thus, in order to make use of the photo, you would still need to obtain explicit permission from the author’s estate, or the current copyright holder.

Aerial photo of farmed plains separated by dark mountains
Okay, so this wasn’t taken in 1940. However it was taken in Afghanistan, and is licenced for use from Pixabay.

For a list of the durations of copyright in different countries, see this Wikipedia page.

Who owns the copyright?

It’s been mentioned above that the author of a work owns the copyright to that work. However in reality, this also depends on the circumstances of the work’s creation. In some cases, the copyright is transferred to another person or organisation. This could include:

  • Record company
  • Broadcaster
  • Publisher (i.e. of a scientific journal)
  • Employer
  • Commissioner (i.e. of an artwork)
  • Co-author(s)
  • Enrolled institution (such as a university)

For more information on how this works in the UK, see government guidance on ownership of copyright.

What is Public Domain?

Firstly, public domain is not the same as publicly available – never assume that because something is, for instance, on the internet, that it is in the public domain.

Black and white head-and-shoulders line drawing of the composer, Ludwig van Beethoven.
Ludwig van Beethoven

When the copyright duration on a work has lapsed, it falls into the category of public domain (PD). This means that the work can be used, altered, reused, republished, etc. without licence or permission from the author. However if alterations are subsequently made to the work, then in most cases, copyright for these alterations will be the held by the person responsible for them, as these are also considered a “work”.

Line-drawn artwork on yellowed paper: Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man
The works of Leonard Da Vinci are also in the public domain.

For example, the musical works of Ludwig van Beethoven are in the public domain, but if someone creates a new recording of his 5th Symphony in C minor, the recording is then copyrighted. Additionally, if someone creates a new arrangement of the 5th Symphony for tin whistle and banjo, then they will own the copyright for the arrangement.

Remember that, due to differing national laws, a work may be considered to be in the public domain in one country, but not another.

Releasing works into the public domain early

In the US and some other countries, it is possible for an author to release their work into the public domain by publishing a legal waiver. However EU law technically does not allow this, so even though something has been released to the public domain in the US, it may still be under copyright law in the UK.

How can I check if I can use materials from the Internet?

Copyright symbol

Look for the copyright symbol ©, and check the website’s Terms & Conditions. Not everything on the internet may have a ©, but (as mentioned above) this does not necessarily mean it is public domain, as all original works are covered by copyright automatically.

Where possible, make use of services that provide materials specifically for licensed use (keep your eye on the blog and we’ll give you some examples). In some cases these can be used for free, as long as you adhere to the specified requirements. In many cases, simply citing the author or source of the material in your work will be enough, but it’s up to you to confirm these requirements.

Asking for permission

In the website’s terms and conditions there may be contact details, or ‘permissions’ for specific uses. If you do ask, and permission is granted, keep a copy of the email. When you ask permission, you will need to be as detailed as you can, stating:

  • what the item is for;
  • where it will be used/shown;
  • for how long.

Further advice on obtaining permission for use of copyrighted material is available in the Society of Authors’ Guidance on Copyright and Permissions.

Further resources


Tony Furnell

E-Learning Officer in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at Queen's University Belfast. Passionate about digital literacy, making life easier for users of technology by designing better systems, and incorporating equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) (including accessibility) into teaching and daily work.

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