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Copyright: The Basics

“Nobody knows everything about copyright”

Graham Cornish (2019): Copyright: Interpreting the Law for Libraries, Archives and Information Services. Facet Publishing, London.

How does copyright work?

contract iconIn the UK, copyright is an automatic right held by anyone who creates a work in a material form, including text, music, photos, artwork, audio and video recordings, performances and databases.  The creator has the right to control the reproduction of the work by other people.  (Protection of the original idea relies on Intellectual Property rights).

Unlike a patent or trademark, copyright does not have to be registered.  Works are automatically protected, whether or not they have a copyright statement or © symbol.

The creator can transfer or sell their copyright to a publisher or distributor. Protection lasts for a further 70 years after the creator's death, for most forms of copyright material.

UK copyright is governed by the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (amended in 2014).  The Act sets out the exceptional circumstances in which copyright material can be reused without the rights-holder's permission, including some educational scenarios.  See the sections of this guide For Teachers, For Researchers and For Students.

Creative Commons and other open licences

Many researchers and educators choose to share their copyright work with a licence permitting other people to copy and re-use it free-of-charge, under certain conditions. Creative Commons is an internationally-recognised licensing scheme:

Visualisation of Creative Commons licence levels

CC-0 ('public domain'): The creator has waived their right to restrict use of this work.

CC-BY Free to re-use with attribution

SA ('share alike'):  Any new material created from the licensed work must also have an open licence

ND ('no derivatives'): The work should not be adapted without permission, other than reformatting for users with a disability

NC‚Äč No commercial use permitted. (Jisc has advised that UK university teaching is 'non-commercial', despite student fees. However, marketing activities may not be covered.)


Try out the Creative Commons Licence Chooser to identify a suitable licence for your own work, and the html code to embed it in your website.


Publications which originate from public sector bodies in the UK are assigned the Open Government Licence, which permits copying and re-use for any purpose, with attribution.

Software developers may choose to share their work with an open licence such as the GNU GPL or Apache. More information here about the range of licences supported on the GitHub platform.

Licensing Agencies

Licensing agencies work on behalf of copyright owners by creating a legally-binding framework for use of copyright material, and collecting royalties for the rights-holder. 

The University of Hull pays for institution-wide licences which permit staff to make copies for students in accordance with licence terms:

For more information about reading lists and classroom use of licensed material, see the section of this guide For Teachers.

The University does not hold any other copyright licences for the whole institution. Researchers, faculties and student societies may need to make their own arrangements to license non-scholarly activities which would otherwise infringe copyright.

Sources of advice

University of Hull staff and students: contact with any questions or comments.


Changes to Copyright Law (2014): From the UK's Intellectual Property Office, a series of guides to the law for specific scenarios including education, research, accessibility and more.

Copyright User is an independent educational resource targeted at content creators and students, with support from several UK universities. Up-to-date guidance includes how to Licence and Exploit your Work, plus animated videos and learning activities.

Copyright Cortex: created by UK academics with support from research councils and other professional bodies  "to provide libraries, archives and museums with information and expert commentary on how copyright law affects the creation and management of digital cultural heritage. The resource will also be valuable for anyone who works in the Digital Humanities".

Copyright Hub: launched in 2012 with support from UK publishers and licensing agencies to "make the process of giving and getting permission – the basic building block of the copyright process – fit for purpose in the age of the Internet".  Resources include template statements for rightsholders and requesting permission.

CC License