Copyright – The basics

What is copyright?

Copyright is protection for original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works, sound recordings, films, broadcasts or cable programmes, and the typographical arrangement of published editions as given in Section 1 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.  

What protection does copyright grant?

Copyright does not protect ideas as such, but instead protects the expression of those ideas. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 does not refer to this principle but the principle has been held up in case law for a very long time. The split between the idea and its expression is known as the idea/expression dichotomy.

Literary works

A literary work covers any work of literature, i.e. it covers any written words. This includes books, computer code, minutes from a meeting, newspaper articles etcetera. Derivative works and adaptations are also covered meaning that if, for example, a book is adapted to issue a chapter a week in a magazine, it is still covered by copyright. An adaptation would also include taking the characters from one fictional work and applying them to another without permission. The information stored in a database may also be covered.

Dramatic Works

A dramatic work would include films, plays, dance and mimes. There is one proviso in case law that it must be a work of action (see case Creation Records [1997]) meaning there must be some movement.

Musical Works 

The music is itself is covered. This means the sound that you hear is covered. The lyrics are also covered by copyright but they would usually fall under the literary work section as opposed to the musical works section.

What are the requirements for gaining copyright protection? 

The work must originate from the author. Whilst this may seem fairly straight forward and obvious it may require some clarification. The meaning behind ‘originating with the author’ is that the author has not merely compiled small pieces of other peoples work into his own new work and claimed copyright. The new work itself must have originated with the author. This does not require the work to be the expression of an original idea, but merely the way that the idea is expressed must be original. This is basically a test of originality.

This test for originality can be elaborated upon slightly. It is a requirement of copyright law that copyright will exist where sufficient skill, judgement and labour have gone into the creation of a work. Detriment could possibly mean financial outgoings, labour could mean some work has gone into it and some skill could merely mean not everything was due to luck. This leaves the originality test in copyright as a very low level to achieve. 

In order to gain copyright protection the work must be in some form of fixed form. A speech given will gain protection if it is recorded, for example. Or a poem will become a literary work only once it has been written down; it gains no protection whilst it is merely in the author mind.

It should be noted that the quality of the work has no bearing on the ability to gain copyright protection for it. A work of art, for example, could be considered no more than rubbish under peer review; however it will still gain protection under copyright law.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright lasts for different lengths of time depending on the type of copyright protection granted (literary, sound recordings, films, broadcasts etc.

Literary, Musical, Dramatic, Artistic works

These are all traditionally covered by copyright and gain protection for 70 years after the death of the author. This date holds even if the copyright is transferred to another party and means the estate of the author may still claim for copyright infringement after the death of the author (if the copyright was not sold before then). 

If the author of a work is not known then the copyright lasts for 70 from the first date it was made or the date when it was made available to the public.


Films raise the problem of having multiple people with an investment in the copyright. The protection offered by law is 70 years after the death of the last of the following: the director; the script writer (dialogue); the author of the screenplay or the composer of a score specifically composed for the film. If the above are unknown the protection lasts for 50 years from the date of making the film.

Sound recordings 

Protection for sound recordings lasts for 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was first made available to the public (i.e. when it first went on sale, was played at a concert or on the radio etc). If a person is not a national of a coutry within the European Economic Area the length of copyright for a sound recording is that granted under that persons own national law (for example a US citizen would gain a 95 year protection for music).


A broadcast will receive protection for 50 years form the end of the calendar year in which the broadcast was originally made. Broadcasts will cover radio TV and live internet streaming.

Who owns the copyright? 

Just like the length of time copyright grants depends on the type of work that is protected, so does the owner of the copyright. In general it is the person who creates the work who owns the copyright but this is not always the case.

Literary, Musical, Dramatic, Artistic works 

As these are the works traditionally covered by copyright the author of the work is the original owner of the copyright.


Films are again more complicated. The original owner of the copyright in a film is the producer and the principle director jointly. This grants a certain compensation to the producer for initiating the work and compensation to the producer who created the final piece.

Sound recordings

The producer of a sound recording owns the original copyright. The sound recording would be the actual recording on the CD, for example. The song writer may still hold the copyright in the lyrics, for example.


The person making the broadcast is the person who owns the copyright in it.  

It is possible that the employment contract of the author means that the employer is actually the owner. The cases listed above are for the absence of other contracts. The author is important for determining the length of time the copyright lasts for and it should be noted that the copyright may change hands after the protection begins.