What is Copyright

Copyright is a set of exclusive rights for creators which allows them to copy, adapt and distribute their works.

Copyright allows the creator or owner an opportunity to exploit their work for a period of time before they become categorised as being in the ‘public domain’ and freely available to everyone.

Copyright adds to the general wealth of society. 'Exploiting' something you've made doesn't just mean for money - it can also be for reputation, to build a business, to assist others or to establish an original contribution to research.

There are eleven key points which define copyright regulation in the UK which are described in this page.

copyright lights


Eleven Key Points - plus One Reminder

 must be original work to warrant copyright

copyright is automatic

 copyright is applied to a set of media categories - literary (which includes computer code as it's written); artistic (visual including photos and digital images); audio and music recording, etc. The full list is given below.

 EXPRESSION of ideas - copyright comes about when a work is 'fixed' - published, recorded, etc. - you don't copyright the idea itself, you copyright the expression of an idea

the conditons of authorship - includes group work as well as the individual

mutiple copyrights - many forms of media involve more than one copyright owner - film, theatrical performances and websites for for instance

moral rights - no defamation of the creator's name or reputation

derogatory treatment - no editing, manipulating or mistreating of the works

durations - how long things are in copyright. The full list is given below.

ownership - a creator can sell or pass on the copyrights for a work to another person, publisher, dictributor, etc. So the copyright owner isn't necessarily the creator.

waiver of rights - giving up moral rights - intentionally and unintentially

... to which should be added the dictum that digital isn't different!



Copyright is about originality: anything you copyright must be original in the sense of being the result of independent intellectual effort – it doesn’t have to be at the E=MC2 end of the originality scale but neither can it be a copy of something someone else has already done – that’s plagiarism. A summary of a subject made up of facts in the public domain - e.g. a 'powerpoint' about the the Egyptian pyramids made up of information from basic encylcopedia and museum resources  - probably doesn't count. Though if you've drawn the illustrations yourself and crafted the text to suit a particular audience, then that's your expression of the bare facts and that might count.

You can't copyright facts.


It's automatic!

Copyright is Automatic

In the UK copyright is automatic. If you express or “fix” an idea in a piece of writing or a drawing or on a recording it is automatically copyrighted. You don’t have to do anything, though putting a name - person or organisation - on it with the date is usually very helpful to everyone. You can add the copyright symbol - © - or the phrase “copyright [author's name] all rights reserved [date]”, but you don’t have to. You can also claim your copyright but give permsiion for other people to re-use your work in certain limited ways - such as you can use it but you must acknowledge me' or 'you can use the work for education' but not commercially.

Looking at it from the other side it is up to the user to recognise that the work is someone's copyright and ask permission if they want to re-use the material or re-use it in the way that has been stated. Even if they can't see a name or contact anywhere handy. In the world of copyright you assume that someone created it and someone may be the copyright owner.


Copyright applies to ...

Copyright Applies to everything from books to films to websites

Copyright applies to a wide variety of media, or “works”, which are grouped into categories:

literary or written works: novels, instruction manuals, computer programs, song lyrics, scripts, screenplays, newspaper articles and some types of database

dramatic works: theatre; performance; recital; dance; mime.

musical works: sheet music.

artistic works: paintings; prints; photographs; sculptures; collages; architecture;  technical drawings; diagrams; maps; logos.

recordings: sound; film.

broadcasts: radio; television.

layouts or typographical arrangements used to publish a work, for a book or magazine for instance

The categories matter because there are clear differences between them in the copyright regulations.

The UK IP Office lists the categories in About Copyright


Expression of ideas and 'fixing'

Copyright protects the ‘expression of ideas’ not the ideas themselves; it has to be ‘fixed’ - made premanent - by writing, printing, drawing, being made into a film or photograph, etc. If you stand up and discuss your ideas on the street corner you can’t copyright the ideas you give out; but if you had a film made of yourself doing it and put it on a website or printed your speech as a text you automatically have copyright of the film or the printed text - though still not the ideas.


For UK copyright the creator must be a British subject or the material must be first published in the UK. Copyright extends globally through International law and trade agreements but legally UK schools are bound to UK law. For teachers and other adults working in schools copyright for the work they do within their terms and conditions of work is usually held by the school and Local Authority. For the pupils their work is their own and they own the copyrights.

For more information on these important distinctions see Copyright and Schools

Where more than one person has created a work and there is no distinctive leading contribution as perhaps in a school film or collaborative project copyright can be held jointly.  This can lead to difficulties later on in getting agreements from people no longer in touch should some of them wish to use the work in question. In a situation with distinctive roles separate copyrights for the different aspects can be used as in ‘music by so-and-so and lyrics by someone-else’.

Joint Authors - music groupA music group is formed by friends from the same school who practice there after school and at home. They begin creating their own music as well as 'covering' other people's songs. They make demo recordings and publish their 'stuff' on a social networking site. They become semi-professional selling CDs and being paid for gigs.

At what point do they start worrying about their own copyright?

At what point do they consider other people's copyrights?

At what point do they sort out whose entitled to what copyrights within the group?

See modules 4 and 5 for more on music groups and copyright.


Multiple copyrights

However, copyright doesn’t always fit easily into a particular category. Websites are often made up of materials from more than one category – using images, sounds, music, text, layout, logos and computer code . Media productions such as films, music or computer games have multiple copyrights associated with them covering the creative work of composers, scriptwriters, performers, cinematographers, art directors, developers, recording studios, etc.

Even a single digital image may have more than one right associated with it ; one for the original image, maybe a painting and another one for the original digital image made from it and one for whoever owns and/or publishes the image maybe a picture agency or an educational supplier.

You watch a film for the story, the information, the ideas, the excitement: but how many 'copyrights' are involved? It could be all the work of one person of course but it is often the result of collaborative effort and the 'copyright' list can become quite a long one.

Scriptwriter and director and the producer and on down the distrbutor chain to those licenced to show or distribute the film. The composer of the music and perhaps lyric writer has their copyright and it is this complication that often makes getting permissions to use films and broadcasts difficult as the music rights have to be cleared as well as the film istelf. In addition there are perfomers rights for the actors, photographer's rights for the still photographer, and the rights associated with product placement and rights if third party resources such as archive film or stills or pre-recorded music are used. The Director may also have asserted their moral rights. Film = multiple rights.

This image from Slumdog Millionaire is one that required formal permission from the UK distributor of the film to use. “ⓒ 2009 Pathe Film Distribution Limited. All rights reserved.” That means that the rights granted by the owner for it''s publication here doesn't necessarily transfer to someone else to re-use the image again, somewhere else or for another purpose.


Whose Copyright B

A simple image on a website; surely only one copyright here?

Well maybe - but considerThere will be several stages to making the image accessible to you. 1. The photographer takes photo. 2. The publisher gets it. 3. Someone scans it to make a digital image. 4. A web developer makes copies of the image in the right formats and dpi for the website and links to a copy of it in a database. 5. Image serch engigne makes a copy that you 'find' 6. Your computer/device copies it and maybe you copy it again by downloading it. 6. And so on.  There are certainly lots of 'copies' and there could be more than one layer to the copyright.

If the photographer is publishing the image through their own website then it's probably just one copyright. But if it is often two copyrights in the UK. The photographer who is the original creator and the person who now 'owns' the digital copy that they publish, licence or distribute.  In many cases the photographer will have licenced the use of the image, for say a book, but retain their copyright to sell the work again. In other cases the situation is made yet more complex by photos being licenced for use through a picture library and the website you are using having got them from there.  Even if the photographer has sold out their copyrights to a publisher or library they will still retain their moral rights.

One thing is clear just because you have copied the image for your own use, unless it has been explicitly stated, you have no copy rights to re-use it or distribute it. You need to get permisson to do so. Because you can do it doesn't mean you should.


Moral Rights

Moral rights protect the artistic integrity and reputation of the creator and are separate from copyrights. They apply to the authors of literary, dramatic, musical, artistic works and film directors and are:

the right for the author or creator to be acknowledged.

the right to object to false attribution.

the right not to have their work subjected to ‘derogatory’ treatment.

Moral rights were introduced in the UK in 1989 and in the strict copyright meaning don’t apply to works prior to that date, though an artist could still complain if  they felt they or their work had been mistreated to their detriment using other elements of the law.


However, moral rights do not arise in work produced by the employees or staff of a company in the normal course of their employment – and that includes the workforce in schools As with most things to do with copyright there are a number of special circumstances which in this case are discussed on the UK IP Office website article ‘Moral Rights’


Derogatory treatment

Derogatory treatment refers to ‘physical’ treatment of the work. If an author or creator claims moral rights then you are not free to chop it about or alter it in any way through for instance editing or  making additions. With images you are not free to crop them or use photo-manipulation software or add-in new characters, etc.

If a website says you may use or re-use their material but with “no-derogatory treatment” that means you have to use it ‘as is’. Photographs provided with press releases can only have minor adjustments made to them; for instance the Press Association terms and conditions of use by its registered users says, without any edit, adaptation or change whatsoever save to the extent reasonably necessary to fit the format (including the graphical user interface) of any site on the world wide web or any other relevant service forming part of your service and at a resolution of not more that 72 DPI …”



Lengths of string with names of copyright categories. How long does each stay in copyright?

Copyright is granted for a period of time, called a “duration”, so that the creator has time to develop and profit from their work, before it enters into the “public domain”, when it becomes freely available for everyone to use. The general rule is that the period of copyright begins with the death of the author NOT the publication date of, for instance, a book.  So if you come across a book or article or photograph it’s when the author or creator died not the date on the material, and that could be very different. For instance, the novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ was first published in 1961 and it’s author, Muriel Spark, died in 2006, so the novel remains in copyright until 2076.

Love Me Do 2‘Love Me Do’ by The Beatles was written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon in 1958/59 and released as a single in 1962. The song and the lyrics are owned by McCartney and the Lennon estate. They are in copyright for 70 years after the composers’ death – so there's a long way to go yet before they come out of copyright and into the public domain. The recording itself stays in copyright for 50 years - that's 1962 + 50 = 2012 - in this case until 2012, at which time companies other than the present owner could release it – but because of the 70 year rule McCartney and the Lennon estate will continue to receive royalty payments on the original music and lyrics for each sale.

The durations in the UK are as follows:

literary: 70 years after the death of the author

dramatic: 70 years after the death of the author

musical: 70 years after the death of the author

artistic work including a photographs: 70 years after the death of the creator.

film is 70 years after the death of the last to survive of the principal director, the authors of the screenplay and dialogue, and the composer of any music specially created for the film.

sound recordings are generally protected for 50 years from the year of publication. (NB. This will change to 70 years in the UK by 2014)

broadcasts are protected for 50 years

There may be some differences from the table above for some works created before 1st January 1996. The UK IP Office describes durations and some of their complexities at How Long Copyright Lasts’.  Durations can also be different in some other countries.

Old sepia photograph of a little girl with a rocking horse, asking 'How old am I?'The situation with regard to photographs is particularly complex and if you are dealing with old photographic material for a teaching resources some investigation and possibly further advice may be needed. DACs (the collecting society for the visual arts) Fact Sheet 14 describes the position of older photographs and copyright well, but as it points out in its footnote, even its level of detail is only a starting guide and you are advised to seek specialist advice if you are dealing with a specific set of material.

The photo of the little girl  is fairly obviously old; but how old? When was it taken? Victorian times?  Or was it Edwardian? And when did the photographer who took the photograph die? And when did the company they worked for cease trading? We might assume it falls into the bracket of 'No Known Copyright'' , but who owns the photograph now? And who made the digital image of it and who owns that? In this instance the history of the photograph is known, but in many cases it isn't and therefore a degree of risk, however small, arises if you wish to publish. For more information on managing copyright materials see Section 4, Good Practice

Recordings and films may also have performers rights associated with them and these are described in ‘Other Rights' in this section. In the case of films it is the last surviving contributor unless copyright has been transferred at some point.

Durations are not the same in every country though the 70 year rule now applies in most of Europe and in the United States and many other countries including Australia, though in Canada it is 50 years. Care should be taken as there are often different arrangements for older works and some particular categories of works.

Unpublished Works. The durations above apply to published works but the position for unpublished work - for instance manuscripts or private letters - it is even more difficult as the UK IP Office explains in Unpublished Works.


Copyright and ownership

The author or creator is always the ‘first owner’ of a copyright but copyright in the UK is a ‘property’ and can be sold or transferred to or inherited by another person, so the copyright owner may not be the creator.  A licencing organisation may collect revenue on behalf of a copyright owner.

In short - you can:

  • sell the copyright but retain the moral rights
  • licence your copyright for use by others to make money but retain ownership

Signing Away or Giving Away Copyrights

However, take care! Collaborative networks, competitions and web-publishers sometimes offer to publish ( = upload) your photographs, reflections on teaching or other prized creations and in the terms and conditions require you to give up all or some of your copyrights. Is that really what you want to happen? To have no control over your work even if 'they' use it in a way you disapprove of or presents it out of context? The digital age isn't so different and 'READ THE SMALL PRINT' applies today just as much today as it did in the past with printed documents.

If you register on many collaborative or social networking sites you are asked "Have you read and do you agree to the Terms and Conditons of Use - please tick" which may well contain detail on how copyright will be treated. Well have you read them before you click 'yes' or 'submit'?  (Go on, if you 'submit' the clue may be in that very term!)

As a teacher it's doubly important to reflect on these situations before you encourage pupils to join a website or use an application that might sign away their rights ... at the very least they should be aware and have their say first. Prior parental/carer permissions may also be required.

More about this important issue in terms and conditons of use of collaborative projects and online services in Section 4, Good Practice

Waiver of Moral Rights

The term 'waiver of moral rights' means to waive or give up your moral rights to a someone else. It is irrevocable - once you've done it there's no going back with , "I've changed my mind, etc....!" You have, in effect, waived goodbye to them!  Basically, don't go there and seek legal advice before you act.  

Digital Isn't Different!