Copyright protection is automatically granted to all literary, dramatic or artistic work created in the UK as a result of creative endeavour, skill or mental prowess.

What is copyright protection?

Under UK law, copyright protection is automatically granted to artistic, literary and dramatic creations borne out of skill and creativity. This might include a screenplay, a sound recording or a piece of software. Copyright does not need to be applied for, although some companies or individuals choose to register their copyright with a third-party agency.

What exactly does copyright cover?

The following items are automatically protected by copyright once they have been ‘fixed’ e.g. written, recorded or created.
  • Dramatic and musical works including music and lyrics
  • Films, videos, broadcasts including those on cable, satellite and the Internet
  • Sound recordings
  • Databases – both paper and electronic
  • Typographical arrangement or distinctive publication layout
  • Artistic works such as technical drawings, photographs and maps
  • Literary works such as books, computer programs and instruction manuals
Copyright is not limited to one particular medium and covers all mediums in which the work exists, including the Internet. Copyright is automatically granted on all works as per the list above except where an alternative arrangement has been agreed in advance.

What does copyright not cover?

Copyright does not protect ideas or concepts. Additionally it does not cover products or processes, although these may be protectable using a patent or a trademark. Names, titles, slogans and ideas – intangible assets – are also not covered by copyright law. If you want to protect these you must apply for a trademark. More information can be found on our guide to intellectual property.

Moral rights in copyright law

Copyright holders also have moral rights automatically conferred. These are the right to object to distortions of your work and the right to be declared as the work’s author (provided you have declared your wish to exercise this right). These do not apply in all circumstances; employees can’t exercise these rights for works originally owned by their past employers. In addition, these rights do not exist for authors of computer programs or material used in newspapers, magazines or reference materials.

How does copyright work in a business environment?

Businesses own the copyright in works created by employees, however contractors are an exception. Contractors own copyright for any work created unless another arrangement has been agreed in advance.

Can I protect related materials?

Automatic copyright protection only applies to ‘fixed’ creations i.e. final works. However you may have supporting materials, such as research or development documentation, that you feel are particularly connected to the copyrighted work. You can register these materials on an unofficial copyright register to afford them a degree of protection and link them to the copyrighted work.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright protection periods vary depending on the type of work that’s protected. In some cases the time and place it was created are also important. Copyright granted in the UK for literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works lasts from when the work is finalised until 70 years after the death of the creator. Copyright granted for films last for 70 years until after the death of whoever dies last out of the first director, screenplay author, dialogue author or composer. Broadcasting and sound recording copyright lasts for 50 years. Copyright granted for typographical arrangement (with regard to publishing) lasts for 25 years.

Sources of further information

Please view our article on how to protect your intellectual property for information on items that do not qualify for automatic copyright. TheIntellectual Property Office can advise you further on copyright law; they have produced a basic facts spreadsheet that is available for download (PDF, 1.34mb).