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What is the copyright law in the UK?

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Copyright law is broadly similar across the world

But there are some particularities that it is important to know about in the UK. Our guide below explains more.

Image of a low sunrise, rising over a red field and trees in the background. Close to our face are sheathes of wheat.

Photo by Matteo Panara on Unsplash 

Words by Dr Martin Douglas Hendry

Copyright law is an essential aspect of the creative industry that protects the rights of creators and their creations. In the United Kingdom, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 is the primary legislation that governs copyright law. In this blog, we'll explore the history, scope, ownership, exceptions, enforcement, and registration of copyright law in the UK.



A Brief History of Copyright Law in the UK


The concept of copyright law has been around for centuries. The first known copyright law was the Statute of Anne, which was passed by the British Parliament in 1710. The statute established a copyright term of 14 years for books, maps, and charts. Since then, copyright law has evolved to cover various types of creative works, including music, films, photographs, software, and more.

The current copyright law in the UK is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which was introduced to modernize and consolidate the previous copyright legislation. The law has since been amended to keep pace with technological advancements and international treaties.



What is Protected by Copyright Law?


Copyright law in the UK protects various types of works, including literary, artistic, musical, and dramatic works, as well as films, sound recordings, broadcasts, and typographical arrangements of published editions. For a work to be eligible for copyright protection, it must be original and fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

The duration of copyright protection varies depending on the type of work. For literary, artistic, and musical works, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. For films, sound recordings, and broadcasts, the protection lasts for 50 years from the date of publication or broadcast.



Copyright Ownership and Infringement


Copyright ownership in the UK typically rests with the creator of the work, unless the creator has assigned the rights to someone else. Copyright infringement occurs when someone uses or copies a copyrighted work without permission from the copyright owner. In the UK, copyright infringement can be a civil or criminal offence, depending on the circumstances.

Some common defences to copyright infringement include fair dealing, which allows for the limited use of copyrighted works for specific purposes such as research, criticism, or news reporting, and the doctrine of exhaustion, which permits the sale of copyrighted works without the permission of the copyright owner once the work has been lawfully sold or distributed.



Exceptions and Limitations to Copyright Law


In some cases, copyrighted works can be used without the permission of the copyright owner. These exceptions and limitations are designed to balance the rights of the copyright owner with the public interest. Examples of exceptions in the UK include the use of copyrighted material for education, research, and private study, as well as the use of works for the purpose of caricature, parody, or pastiche.

As above Fair dealing is another important exception to copyright law in the UK. However, the use of copyrighted material must be fair and not infringe on the economic rights of the copyright owner.



Enforcement of Copyright Law


In the UK, copyright owners can take legal action to enforce their rights. Some common remedies for copyright infringement include injunctions, damages, an account of profits, and delivery up or destruction of infringing copies. Penalties for copyright infringement can include fines, imprisonment, or both.

Enforcement of copyright law in the UK is primarily a civil matter, but some cases may be considered criminal if the infringement is deemed to be serious, e.g. when infringement enters the realm of counterfeiting, typically linked to serious organised crime. The police and other law enforcement agencies can also take action against copyright infringers.



Copyright Registration in the UK


Copyright registration in the UK is not mandatory, and there is no central register for copyright in the UK as there is in the United States, for example. Copyright is an automatic right, and as such all original works give rise to copyright at the point they are created. Despite this, it may be beneficial for certain creative industries to keep their own registrations and documentation of the creation of new copyright works, as this can be very helpful should infringement claims be brought.





Copyright law is an essential component of the creative industry in the UK. It protects the rights of creators and their creations and provides a framework for resolving disputes. Understanding the scope, ownership, exceptions, enforcement, and registration of copyright law is crucial for creators, users, and anyone involved in the creative industry. By respecting and complying with copyright law, we can promote creativity and innovation while protecting the rights of creators. As technology continues to evolve, we can expect copyright law to continue to adapt to new challenges and opportunities.


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Look at our other guides that relate to this topic here.

How to sue for copyright infringement in the United Kingdom

How to appeal a copyright infringement claim

What is copyright?



Virtuoso Legal is a team of intellectual property specialists based in Leeds and London - operating worldwide. Virtuoso Legal's team of IP experts have successfully tried cases in the IPEC, High Court, Court of Appeals and United Kingdom Supreme Court. In addition, the team assist companies in creating, commercialising and protecting the big ideas that make their business unique. The firm and its professionals are ranked yearly in legal directories such as the Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners, cementing their status as a Top 2% law firm in the world.

DISCLAIMER: The content within this post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Virtuoso Legal does not take any responsibility for those that use this information and waives any liability for any resulting effect on your personal or commercial circumstances.

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