An introduction to copyright

Copyright is the exclusive legal right to permit or prohibit copying of certain (usually creative) works for a limited time.

This right is recognised in national laws and international treaties and applies to all media, including the internet.

Copyright belongs to the family of intellectual property rights, which includes patents, design, laws of confidence (such as trade secrets) and trade marks. See for further details of these.

Under the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (as amended), copyright protects original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works; films; sound recordings; broadcasts and typographical arrangements. Other things may be protected under different national laws.

Copyright usually lasts for the creator's lifetime, plus the end of 70 years after their death (i.e. copyright always expires on 31 December in a given year).

The way copyright law works in practice can be complex and subtle, so it is essential to get detailed, expert advice on each individual case. The idea behind copyright is, however, quite simple.


The first Copyright Act came in 1709. Known as the Statute of Anne (as it came into force during the reign of Queen Anne), it is widely considered the earliest piece of copyright legislation anywhere in the world. It was introduced to protect the interests of publishers.

Later that century, the artist William Hogarth lobbied Parliament for the protection of artists' rights. Hogarth had worked long and hard to achieve his status as an artist and satirist, and was angry to see inferior copies of his work being sold in large quantities, for which he received no payment. The new technology of engraving had made copying quick and easy.

The first UK copyright legislation was guided by the principles that:

  • it was in the general interest that people keep creating new interesting works in the arts and sciences
  • people would not create new works without a guarantee their efforts would be rewarded
  • the guarantee of reward for effort was to give people an exclusive right to their own work, so anyone else wishing to exploit their work would have to reward them for it.

Under UK copyright law you are automatically the owner of copyright in any work you produce, be it a picture, poem, sculpture or story. The main exception to this rule is that if you are an employee copyright in any work you produce in your job usually belongs automatically to your employer.

An important thing to remember is that ownership of copyright can be completely distinct and separate from ownership of a physical object. For example, the Gallery owns a number of paintings and photographs (objects) which it cannot copy without permission, as it does not also own the copyright. Often this rests with the artist or photographer, or their estate.