Copyright: the basics

Key information regarding the basics of copyright protection and how long it lasts.


Copyright: the basics

Copyright is an intellectual property right. In the UK, copyright is set out in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, and related legislation. 

The Act recognises eight different types of protectable works. These are often grouped into the so-called authorial works, which includes literary, dramatic, musical and artistic ones, and entrepreneurial works - which covers films, sound recordings, broadcasts and typographic layouts.

What does copyright give you?

Broadly speaking, the creator of a copyright work gets the right to stop any other person from doing any of the restricted acts with that work, unless they have granted that person a licence to do the particular act, or the person can rely on a copyright legal exception. The restricted acts are sometimes called the economic rights, as they can allow rights holders to profit from their creations.


These deal with copying and dissemination of works, and are the exclusive rights to:

  • copy the work (reproduction right)
  • issue (physical) copies to the public (distribution right)
  • rent or lend the work to the public
  • perform, show or play in public 
  • communicate to the public (electronically, e.g. posting online)
  • adapt the work (e.g. translation)


The creators of authorial works, and some films, may also benefit from moral rights. These include:

  • Right to be identified as the author (right of paternity)
  • Right to object to derogatory treatment of the work (right of integrity) 
  • Right to not have works falsely attributed to them

How long does copyright last?

Duration of copyright may depend upon whether a work is published or unpublished, and whether the identity of the creator is known/unknown.

This table outlines the duration of copyright protection for a variety of material types in the UK. The length of protection may vary in other countries. Once works are out of copyright they enter the public domain and are available to reuse.

Type of material Duration of copyright
Literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works

70 years from death of author

If several authors, 70 years following death of last surviving author

Computer-generated literary works 50 years from date of creation
Sound recordings 50 years from date of recording, or 70 years from date of publication
Films 70 years following the last death of: director, author of dialogue, author of screenplay, composer of soundtrack
Broadcasts 50 years from date of broadcast
Typographical layout 25 years from publication
Crown copyright 125 years from publication
Unpublished anonymous works created before 1 August 1989 Copyright expires on 31 December 2039

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