Copyright basics

Copyright basics

This guide covers all the essentials you need to understand the basics of copyright.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a type of ‘intellectual property right’ that is automatically given whenever someone creates an original creative work. It gives the creator the right to decide when and how their work is copied and shared with others.

If you want to copy material that is protected by copyright, you will generally need a licence or permission from the copyright holder. In copyright law there are also ‘exceptions’ which, under certain conditions, allow limited copying and reuse without requiring permission from the copyright holder.

In the UK, copyright law is set out in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

Who holds copyright?

The author who creates the work is usually the initial copyright holder. If that person created the work as part of their job, then their employer is normally the copyright holder.

Copyright can be transferred or sold to others. An author might transfer the copyright for their book to a publishing company, for example.

Works can have multiple copyright holders. For instance, a journal article might have several co-authors. In multimedia works such as films, different elements like the screenplay and music often have separate rightsholders.

What is protected by copyright?

In UK law, copyright protects:

  • original literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic works
  • sound recordings, films, or broadcasts
  • the typographical arrangement of published editions.

Works like photographs, software, charts, and diagrams are also protected.

To be protected, works must have an original and creative element. They must also be written down or recorded in a ‘fixed’ form. You cannot copyright an idea, a fact, a common phrase or a naturally occurring object, for example.

You don’t need to register copyright or add the copyright symbol ©. All qualifying works are automatically protected. Rightsholders will often add a copyright statement to indicate that a work is in copyright. However, don’t assume that something is free to use if it doesn’t have a statement.

Copyright applies to both published and unpublished works.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright is time limited. When a work’s copyright has expired it enters the ‘public domain’ and the work becomes free for anyone to copy and reuse.

Type of work How long copyright usually lasts
Written, dramatic, musical, or artistic work 70 years after the author’s death
Sound and music recording 70 years after it’s first published
Films 70 years after the death of the director, screenplay author and composer
Broadcasts 50 years after it’s first broadcast
Layout of published editions of written, dramatic, or musical works 25 years after it’s first published
Unpublished works where the author died before 1969 Until 31 December 2039


If a work has multiple authors, the expiry of the copyright is calculated from the death of the last surviving author.

Remember, copyright covers the layout of printed editions too. Even if the original author has been dead for over 70 years, the layout of an edition of their work that’s less than 25 years old will still be under copyright.

What activities are restricted under copyright?

There are ‘exclusive rights’ granted to copyright holders allowing them to control how their work is copied and distributed.

These include the rights to:

•    Copy the work
•    Issue copies of the work to the public
•    Rent or lend the work to the public
•    Perform, show, or play the work in public
•    Communicate the work to the public (via broadcast or online)
•    Make an adaptation of the work or do any of the above in relation to an adaptation.

You will need a licence to do any of the above with a copyright work unless your use is covered by a copyright exception.

Exceptions to copyright

Copyright law includes ‘exceptions’ which permit limited use of copyright material in certain circumstances without requiring permission from the copyright holder.

The main exceptions relevant to studying, teaching and research are:

Research or private study – Section 29

Allows you to make a copy for your own personal use for non-commercial research. The use must be ‘fair dealing’.

Text and data analysis – Section 29A

Allows you to copy material for text and data mining (TDM) for non-commercial research so long as you have lawful access to the original work.

Quotation – Section 30

Allows you to quote from a work, provided your use is ‘fair dealing’. Normally considered to cover smaller extracts but there may be instances when quoting a whole work might arguably be ‘fair’.

Caricature, parody or pastiche – Section 30A

Allows you to use copyright material for creating caricatures, parodies, or pastiches, provided your use is ‘fair dealing’. 

Accessibility – Section 31A-F

Allows the creation of an accessible copy for someone with a disability. This would cover activities like creating a digital copy of a work to be used with a screen reader, or subtitles or transcripts for a video.

Illustration for instruction – Section 32

Allows educators and students to use copyright material for non-commercial teaching or examinations providing the use is ‘fair dealing’.

Educational performance – Section 34

Allows copyright works to be performed, played, or shown to an audience consisting solely of students and staff of an educational establishment such as a school or university.

Recording by educational establishments of broadcasts – Section 35

Allows educational establishments to make recordings of broadcasts for non-commercial educational purposes where there is no licence available for using the material.

Copying and use of extracts of works by educational establishments – Section 36

Allows educational establishments to copy up to 5% of a work for non-commercial teaching where there is no licence available for copying the material.

Fair dealing

Many of the copyright exceptions specify a ‘fair dealing’ requirement. There is no specific universal definition of fair dealing in the legislation. What is ‘fair’ will depend on context and will vary from case to case.

You can consider the following questions to decide whether your use is fair to the copyright holder.

1.    Will your actions negatively affect the original rightsholder’s ability to sell or use their work in the way they want to? Does your copying create a substitute which undermines sales of the original work? If so, your use is unlikely to be considered fair.

2.    Is your use necessary and proportionate for your purpose? You should copy no more than the minimum necessary. Copying entire works is generally not seen as fair unless you have a good reason why the whole work must be used.

3.    Have you provided an acknowledgement to the original author? You should always include an acknowledgement unless this isn’t possible for practical reasons, for example in an exam question.

Deciding whether your use is fair is a matter of informed judgement. Copyright decisions will often involve a risk management approach.


Where your copying is not covered by a copyright exception, there are various licences which can enable you to copy protected material legally.

Electronic library resources

Electronic resources provided through the Library, such as ebooks and ejournals, are licensed by the publisher for use by members of the University. If you are sharing this material with students or staff, we recommend providing a link to the material as hosted through the Library.  You should avoid sending copies or uploading material into MyAberdeen as not all the licence agreements permit this kind of reuse.

You should not share copies of ebooks, ejournal articles and other licensed electronic resources with people outside the University as this contravenes the licence agreements. The exception to this is resources released under an open licence, such as a Creative Commons licence, which permits open sharing.

CLA licence

The University has a licensing agreement with the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA). This enables teaching staff to request copies of extracts from certain copyright-protected works for teaching purposes.

The copies must be made from an original of a book, journal or magazine owned by the University. The following amounts can be copied per course:

  • Up to 10% or one chapter of a book
  • Up to 10% or one article from a single issue of a journal
  • Up to 10% or one paper of one set of conference proceedings
  • Up to 10% of an anthology or one short story or one poem of not more than 10 pages
  • Up to 10% or one case of one report of judicial proceedings.

The material can include both text and images.

Materials from most UK publishers can be scanned under the licence. You can use the Check Permissions Search Tool to determine the licensing status of an item.

To ensure compliance with the CLA licence and accessibility requirements, you should request all scans through the online reading lists system. The Library will check that your request is covered by the CLA licence, make a high-quality accessible scan, and upload it to your reading list where it can be accessed by your students. The Library will also add the necessary copyright notice to the scan and take care of all the required record keeping and reporting.

Visit the CLA Higher Education Licence webpages for further details about the licence.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) Licences enable copyright owners to make their work openly available for sharing and creative reuse. There are a variety of licences, each with differing levels of permission. You can freely reuse material with a Creative Commons licence provided you follow the licence conditions.

The licences can be applied to works such as theses, articles, and other research outputs to licence them for sharing and reuse. Many funders require that research resulting from their funding be published under a Creative Commons licence. See our Open Access pages for further information about licensing your research outputs.

ERA (Educational Recording Agency) Licence

The University holds the ERA licence for recording TV and radio programmes ('broadcasts') for non-commercial educational purposes. It is a blanket licence allowing reasonably free use of material produced by ERA members, including the main terrestrial TV channels and Open University Worldwide.

You can record feature films, advertisements, documentaries, dramas, etc. for educational use with registered students and staff involved with teaching. This can be done via the Box of Broadcasts (BoB) National platform. You can access archived recordings and request recordings of upcoming broadcasts, as well as create clips which can be embedded in teaching material.

ERA requires all recordings and copies to be accompanied by details (a label for example) of date, name of broadcaster, time and title of the recording and the statement "This Recording is to be used only under the terms of the ERA Licence".

For further information, contact Media Services.

NLA Education Establishment Licence

The NLA Education Establishment Licence covers copying from print and digital newspapers and certain magazines. It permits users in the University to copy from print and online NLA media access publications for use in the classroom or for private study.

Open Government Licence

The Open Government Licence (OGL) covers use of UK official publications and other information produced by or on behalf of government agencies in the UK.

This licence allows you to:

  • copy, publish, distribute and transmit the information;
  • adapt the information;
  • exploit the information commercially and non-commercially.

Information used under this licence must be acknowledged by including or linking to any attribution statement specified by the information provider and, where possible, providing a link to the licence.

Individual rightsholder agreements

If your reuse of copyright material is not covered by an exception or an existing licence, it may be possible to request permission directly from the rightsholder. That might be the original author or creator, or their estate if they are deceased, although the rightsholder is often a publisher or employer.

Remember that negotiating permission in this way can take a long time, especially if the rightsholder is slow to respond. It is wise to have a backup plan in place, such as alternative material or a shorter excerpt under a copyright exception, in case the rightsholder refuses permission, requires a fee you are unable to pay, or simply fails to respond to you.

If you cannot identify the rightsholder, you may be able to apply for a licence to use the material under the UK provisions for orphan works. However, this process can be uncertain and time-consuming. You may wish to take a more risk management approach and consider using the material even if you have not been able to clear the rights.

Copyright infringement

Copyright infringement occurs when you copy or reuse someone else’s copyright-protected work without being covered by a licence or a copyright exception.

Both the individual and the University may be liable in the event of an infringement. It may be minor and easily resolved or it may become a serious legal matter leading to fines, reputational damage, or disciplinary action.

If you are contacted by anyone claiming that their or their client’s copyright has been infringed, contact us as soon as you can, and we will investigate. Not all copyright infringement claims are legitimate, and even valid claims can usually be resolved without legal action. However, it is important any infringement claims are dealt with promptly to manage the risk to you and the University.

Risk management

Copyright can be complex, and it is not always clear whether an activity is legal or infringing. Copyright is a balance between the rights of individual creators to protect and exploit their work, and wider society to share, evaluate and build on that work.

By taking a risk management approach, we can make informed decisions which reduce the risks associated with copyright infringement without unnecessarily restricting our use of copyright works.

Here are some questions to consider if you are making a decision about copying or reuse.

  • Is your use covered by a licence or likely to fall under an exception?
  • How likely is it that the rightsholder will become aware of your use of their work?
  • If the rightsholder does become aware, how likely are they to object? Consider what harm, if any, your use is likely to do to the rightsholder or the market for their work.
  • If they do object, what action might they take? What financial or reputational damage might this cause to you or the University?

You can also take the following steps to help mitigate risk.

  • Consider whether you need to make a copy or whether you could link to the original instead.
  • Don’t copy more of the work than you need to.
  • Always copy from a legally accessed version of the material.
  • Always include an acknowledgement to the original creator, if possible.
  • If you’ve copied work under a licence, indicate this with a coversheet, copyright notice or a link to the licence in the acknowledgement.

Contact us

If you have any questions about copyright, please contact us: