UK: The Basics Of Copyright Law

Last Updated: 1 December 2017
Article by Meite Xin

It is essential for brand owners to understand the basic rules relating to copyrights. In this podcast, Meite Xin introduces you to some basic copyright concepts, including copyright subsistence, the ownership of copyright, the existence and international protection of copyright, the infringement of copyright and the limits to the scope of copyright law.

Download podcast

Subscribe via iTunes


Hi everyone, I'm Meite Xin, an associate in the Gowling WLG Intellectual Property team. This podcast will introduce you to some basic copyright concepts, including copyright subsistence, the ownership of copyright, the existence and international protection of copyright, the infringement of copyright and the limits to the scope of copyright law.  

First, let's have a quick look at what is copyright and how does copyright subsist?

Copyright is:

  • A property right which subsists in original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works as provided for by the Copyright, designs and Patents Act 1988 (the CDPA Act). It is an automatic right and arises whenever an individual or company creates a work. It is entirely separate from property rights in the work itself as an object. It is perfectly possible for one person to own a painting and for another person to own the right to copy the painting.
  • Originality is a relatively easy test which can be easily satisfied - the work in question need not be unique in any way. 'Original' means that the author must have created the work through his or her own skill, judgment and individual effort and that it is not copied from other works.
  • There are, however, other types of copyright work - film, sound recordings and broadcasts - which need not be original - for instance, repeat broadcasts each attract their own copyright.
  • Names, titles, short phrases and colours are not generally considered unique or substantial enough to be covered, but a creation, such as a logo, that combines these elements may be.
  • It is generally a right of the author (i.e. the creator) of the work. This is reasonably obvious in relation to written, artistic or musical works although it becomes less clear in relation to films, sound recordings or television broadcasts.
  • As a general rule the work qualifies for protection by copyright if the author was at the material time a British citizen or domiciled in the UK; or if a company incorporated in the UK; or if the work was first published in the UK.

Why it is important to identify the author and owner of the copyright?

  • Every copyright work has an author. The author is the person who creates the copyright work. The CDPA Act sets out who is legally regarded as the author of certain categories of work. Ownership of the copyright always flows from the author, as do all rights to reproduce and exploit the work. Therefore, identifying the author is critical.
  • The owner of a copyright work (who may not be the author) has the right to exploit the work and to sue for infringement. Exclusive licensees can also sue third parties (other than the copyright owner) for infringement. Non-exclusive licensees can also sue.
  • There is often more than one author, and therefore potentially more than one owner of copyright. None can do anything with the work without the consent of all the others.
  • The author is often a human being, not a corporation or other legal body. Some detective work is often necessary to track them down, as the work may be anonymous, have a number of authors, or have been created by someone unexpected. This process can be long and expensive.

Existence, registration and international protection

  • Copyright exists as soon as a work is recorded in any form, even transitory forms in many cases. It does not exist in un-recorded works. So a folk song held in the head of a busker or the great idea for a novel that you have carefully thought out are not copyright protected. No formalities are required for UK protection and no registration is possible. What is an issue is evidence. Careful notes and records should be made to evidence dates of creation. Various private registries exist but are of limited evidential effect.
  • Copyright is a territorial right. I.e. it exists under the laws of a sovereign state. International protection is given by treaties principally now the Berne Convention that just about everywhere has signed up to.  The various levels and layers of international protection are extremely complex. Principally you should note that not everything that is protected in the UK (one of the world 's most comprehensive regimes) is protected elsewhere especially outside Europe.
  • In the UK, The duration for copyright varies between different types of work but, for literary and artistic works, the period is the life of the author plus 70 years.

The infringement of copyright law

  • The structure of copyright is that the CDPA Act lists acts which are the exclusive right of the copyright owner. Infringement is therefore doing one of those acts or authorising another to do so without the owner 's consent or without falling within an exception.
  • Primary Infringement is doing one of the core restricted acts preserved for an owner
    • Copying;
    • Issuing copies;
    • Renting or lending;
    • Performing or showing in public;
    • Broadcasting;
    • Adapting.
  • Copyright can be infringed by either copying the whole of the work or a substantial part of it either directly or indirectly. Indeed reproducing the work in any material form will result in the infringement of copyright. This includes storing the work in any medium by electronic means.
  • What substantial means is a question of fact. Fundamentally it is the right to copy (hence copyright) that is protected. Unlike some registered forms of intellectual property it does not give absolute protection to the work itself. If two independent artists come up with strikingly similar pictures they each have copyright in their work independently and neither one has infringed the other.
  • The general position with regard to copyright is that if that which a person wishes to do with a work (which has the benefit of copyright protection) is something which does not fall within one of the exemptions, then it is an infringement if the 'infringer ' does not have a license to act in that way.
  • There are several exemptions, one of which is 'fair dealing ' with a work which is copyright protected is permitted. Fair dealing includes research and private study; & criticism, review, and news reporting.

Finally, let's briefly have a look at the limits to the scope of copyright law.

  • No monopolies
    • Fundamentally, copyright law should not give rise to monopolies. Any person may produce a work which is similar to a pre-existing work as long as the later work is not taken from the first.
    • It is theoretically possible - if unlikely - for two persons independently to produce identical works, and each will be considered to be the author of his work for copyright purposes

      For example, two photographers may each take a photograph of Nelson's Column within minutes of each other from the same position using similar cameras, lenses and films, after selecting the same exposure times and aperture settings. The two photographs might be indistinguishable from each other, but copyright will subsist in both photographs separately. Both photographers have used skill and judgment independently in taking their photographs and both should be able to prevent others from making copies of their respective photographs.
  • No protection of an idea: copyright law protects only the expression of the ideas, not the ideas themselves. This means that a story relating to an orphaned boy who discovers at the age of 11 that he has magical powers would not necessarily infringe J K Rowling 's copyright in Harry Potter.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

This concludes this copyright podcast. Thank you for listening. Please do contact us if you have any questions about how you can best protect your intellectual property rights.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Events from this Firm
26 Sep 2019, Seminar, London, UK

Providing GCs, Heads of Legal and senior in-house lawyers with timely, topical and practical legal advice on a variety of topics.

8 Oct 2019, Seminar, Birmingham, UK

Supporting the development of paralegals, trainees and lawyers of up to five years' PQE by providing valuable knowledge and guidance together with practical tips.

10 Oct 2019, Seminar, London, UK

Supporting the development of paralegals, trainees and lawyers of up to five years' PQE by providing valuable knowledge and guidance together with practical tips.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Haseltine Lake Kempner LLP
Haseltine Lake Kempner LLP
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (UK) LLP
In association with
Practice Guides
by Mondaq Advice Centres
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Haseltine Lake Kempner LLP
Haseltine Lake Kempner LLP
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (UK) LLP
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions