Library Services


Legislation and background information

These are some the key points about UK Copyright law which you may need to know about.

Within this page:

What is copyright?

Copyright is the legal protection given to a piece of original work as soon as it is fixed in some form, such as written or drawn on paper, in an audio recording, on film, or recorded electronically.

In the UK copyright arises automatically once a work is fixed. There is no need to register. To enjoy copyright protection it must be original, that is to say it must be your work, not copied from someone else.

There is no copyright in ideas, only in the way those ideas are expressed.

The creator of the work owns the exclusive right to make copies of their work and issue them to the public. If you infringe that right by copying or publishing a protected work without permission you could be sued for damages. The law also restricts making copyright works available to the public - such as via the internet. Criminal charges can result from serious or large scale infringement.

There are further acts which are restricted. If you wish to adapt a copyright work, for example by translating it or writing a dramatised version then you also need permission from the copyright owner. The same is true if you wish to stage a performance of a play which is still in copyright.

The showing of films and playing of music (or other protected sound recordings) in a public context also require permission from the copyright owner.

Copyright is a form of property which can be sold, given away, licensed or left in your will in the same way as other forms of property. If you transfer it to someone else you are said to "assign" your copyright

The legal framework is laid out in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 Although updated, the linked version may not always include the most recent amendments to the Act.

What is protected?

Literary, dramatic, musical works

Literary works are defined as anything which is written, spoken or sung and include among other things published books, poetry, blog posts, diary entries, tables, compilations, computer programs and databases. Dramatic works include plays and works of dance or mime.

Artistic works

This is a wide category, including paintings, photographs, maps, charts, plans, engravings, sculpture, art installations, buildings and models of buildings.

Sound recordings, films, broadcasts or cable programmes

Sound recordings include spoken word material. Films include any kind of video recording. The soundtrack is treated as part of the film.

Typographical arrangements of published editions

This means the way the words are arranged on the pages of a literary, dramatic or musical work. The copyright in a typographical arrangement usually belongs to the publisher of the particular edition and it arises even if the work itself is out of copyright.

Web sites

Content on web sites is also protected by copyright although this may not be clearly stated on the site. In terms of copyright law a piece of writing on a web site is a "literary work", an image (a photograph or a drawing for example) is an "artistic work" and a video on YouTube is a "film".

In order to copy or reuse web content you need either direct permission from the copyright owner or the benefit of a licence or a copyright exception, just as you would for material in any other format. Sometimes web sites carry their own copyright information, often in a footer. Sometimes the site or an item of content will carry a Creative Commons Licence, which defines what you are permitted to do with the content without seeking further permission.

How long does copyright last?

The length of time during which a work is protected depends on its type.

  • Literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works are protected for 70 years after the death of the author.
  • Films are protected for 70 years after the death of the last to die of the director, author of the screenplay/dialogue or composer of the soundtrack.
  • Sound recordings are protected for 70 years from the year of publication (release). If they have not been released or publicly performed they are protected for 50 years from the end of the year in which they were made.
  • Typographical arrangements are protected for 25 years after the end of the year in which the edition was published.

When can copyright material be copied?

Copying material that is protected by copyright usually requires the permission of the copyright owner. Obtaining permission directly from the owner is the most certain way of ensuring that your reuse of a copyright work is legal, but there are other possibilities.

In some very specific circumstances you can copy without permission under the exceptions to copyright contained in the legislation. The most important of these are fair dealing exceptions, although there are other exceptions under the legislation which are also relevant to UCL.

You need to be sure that the exception really does apply before relying upon it. The first question to address is: Was this particular exception designed to cover what I intend to do with this work?

The next thing to consider is the "Fair dealing" test which you must then apply to decide whether you may use a particular exception. More about this in the following paragraph.

What does Fair Dealing mean?

There is no concise legal definition. "Fair Dealing" depends on the specific context and the relevant exception to copyright. Guidance from the UK Intellectual Property Office states that the key question is "How would a fair minded and honest person have dealt with the work?" Important questions to consider are:

Could the economic interests of the copyright owner be damaged by our use of the work? Is it a substitute for purchase, for example, or will we be competing with the original work?

Are we using a greater proportion of the work than is reasonable and appropriate in the circumstances?

It is also important to credit the author and source of any work which you use. Fair dealing should not be confused with the broader US concept of "fair use" which is not relevant in the UK.

These are some of the more important fair dealing exceptions:

Non commercial research and private study

The exception for fair dealing for the purpose of non commercial research and private study allows you, as an individual, to make copies for the purposes of your own private study. Only a single copy of each extract is permitted and it must not be shared with others.

The amount that can be copied under fair dealing is not generally specified but reasonable limits must be applied in the particular circumstances. A good rule of thumb is a maximum of one article from a journal issue or a maximum of 5% from a book.

Anyone using a library photocopier or downloading an extract from the internet (unless under the terms of a licence) is relying upon this exception and should therefore take care to be compliant.

For example: as a student you may make a photocopy or scan a book chapter that you need to read for an assignment. You may only use this copy yourself and it should not be passed on to others.

Instruction and examinations

The Act permits copying of extracts for the purpose of "illustration for instruction" and for examination by way of setting questions, communicating the questions to candidates or answering the questions. The emphasis on "instruction" makes it clear that this exception can be used to copy material for use specifically in a teaching context, as long as it is fair dealing.

This would not cover the use of the same material for other purposes such as longer term storage in a virtual learning environment for retrieval on demand although temporary storage on a secure VLE as part of the instructional process may be covered.

Copyright material in any medium, including for example film and sound recordings are within the scope of this exception. The instruction must be "non commercial". It follows that using this exception in the context of fee charging CPD courses would be problematic.

For example: you may wish to include images from printed sources within your thesis or dissertation for examination purposes. This may be permitted under the exception, as long as it is fair dealing. Copyright issues may arise however if your thesis is then made available online or published, since fair dealing is specific to the context of your use of the material.

Copying certain material may be acceptable for purposes of submitting your thesis for examination, but reproducing the same material for publication is no longer covered by the exception for instruction and examination. Unless it is covered by a different exception, you will need to ask the copyright owner's permission.

Please refer to our e-Theses pages for further information on this.


This fair dealing exception permits quotation of limited extracts from copyright works of all kinds in any context as long as the use of the quoted material can be defended as fair dealing. It is always advisable to keep the extracts which you quote as short as possible.

Although this exception is very wide ranging, you must be sure that your use of the quotation will pass the fair dealing test. Otherwise you may be infringing the copyright in the original work. The author and source should always be properly acknowledged.

Disability Exception

This exception allows copyright works to be copied into an accessible format for individuals with disabilities or for the benefit of persons with disabilities generally. This applies to any disability which limits access to copyright works and is to be found in Sections 31A and 31B of the Act.

This covers all types of copyright work. For example it would cover copying a text into a large print version, adding subtitles to a film or copying text into a format which is more accessible for persons with dyslexia.

The main limitation is that if a version in the required format is already available on reasonable terms then we should buy that rather than make a copy. This is not a fair dealing exception and is not subject to that test. The whole of the work may be copied for example, as long as the other conditions are satisfied.

Further information on accessibility at UCL.

Text and Data Mining

The new exception for text and data mining (TDM) is potentially very significant for research projects. The techniques of TDM enable the analysis of large collections of data or published material in new ways using advanced computing techniques.

TDM involves copying the data in order to analyse it and in cases where the material is protected by copyright, such as the content of e-journals, this would usually require permission.

The exception permits TDM to be carried out on copyright works as long as it is for a non commercial purpose. This means that permission from the copyright owner is not required. The exception cannot be over-ridden by the terms of contracts with publishers, which sometimes seek to restrict TDM.

Licence schemes

UCL holds a number of "blanket" licences from organisations representing the interests of a wide range of copyright owners.

These licences mainly permit the copying of material to be used in teaching materials and course packs. These blanket licences are therefore very relevant to copying by UCL staff but they are not usually relevant to copying by students. They include:

The CLA Higher Education Licence, which enables copying and scanning from printed sources to support groups of students on a course of study and the storage of digital copies in a secure environment.

The NLA Media Access Licence, which permits copying of extracts from newspapers.

The Educational Recording Agency (ERA) Licence which licenses the recording and storing of broadcasts for educational purposes.

The BoB (Box of Broadcasts) service may be used by UCL staff and students. It works in conjunction with the ERA Licence (see above).

Students and staff can search the BoB web site for past TV and radio broadcasts from a wide range of channels. Past and current broadcasts and clips from broadcasts may be stored on the user's personal account and used for educational purposes, in compliance with the BoB terms and conditions. This service is delivered entirely via the BoB web site and the broadcasts cannot be downloaded onto a UCL computer.

The Open Government Licence (OGL) allows the copying and reuse of most Government publications, both printed and online publications and is generous in its terms. The licence permits both commercial and non commercial reuse. It applies automatically and is free of charge. It does require that material should be properly attributed.

The OGL applies to most materials which are Crown Copyright. A similar licence applies to material which is Parliamentary Copyright.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons licences enable authors to assert copyright in their work while at the same time encouraging others to reuse their content, subject to certain conditions. You can choose from a range of of CC licences, depending on the types of reuse which you are happy to license. The copyright owner can choose, for example a licence which either allows or rules out commercial reuse of their work.

The Creative Commons Licences are very suitable for material posted on the internet, where the copyright owner has no commercial reasons to protect their content from being reused by others or wishes to encourage reuse.

You can also search for material on the Web that is issued under a Creative Commons Licence The licence accompanying the material (usually represented by a simple logo that links to more in-depth information) will clearly define what types of reuse are permitted by the creator More information about the scheme and the licenses.

If you have any queries or need further advice please contact: copyright@ucl.ac.uk.