What is copyright?


Confused about copyright? Wondering what protection your work will get? Concerned you are infringing someone else’s rights? To help you understand copyright CITMA’s designs & copyright working group has put together this handy guide to copyright.

What is it?

Copyright is a property right which confers on its owner the exclusive right to carry out certain restricted acts in respect of the work which it protects. The right is free, arising automatically when the work it protects is created, and there is no need to register it.

What works are protected?

Original literary, artistic, dramatic and musical works are protected. “Original” means that the work has be to the author’s own intellectual creation, rather than have been copied from elsewhere. The level of creativity and effort required in order for a work to be “original” however, is low, and works will be protected irrespective of their quality or merit. Sound recordings, films and broadcasts are also protected by copyright.

What can’t you copy?

Except for a limited number of specified acts permitted by law, the copyright of a work is infringed if any of the restricted acts are done without the copyright owner’s consent.

The restricted acts are:

  • Copying the whole or a substantial part of the work,
  • issuing copies of the work to the public,
  • renting or lending copies to the public, 
  • performing, showing or playing the work in public,
  • communicating the work to the public by electronic transmission, 
  • making an adaptation of the work (including by way of translating it).

A person also infringes copyright if they deal in an infringing work, for example by importing or selling it, knowing or having reason to believe that it is an infringing copy.

Who is the first owner of copyright?

The “author” of the work will generally be the first owner of copyright in it. The “author” in relation to a work is the person who creates it, and in the case of a sound recording is taken to be the producer; in the case of a film, the producer and the principal director; and in the case of a broadcast, the person making the broadcast.

Where a work (other than a sound recording or broadcast) is made by an employee in the course of his/her employment, their employer will be the first owner of any copyright in the work, unless their contract of employment provides otherwise.

A person commissioned to create a work will be the first owner of copyright in it, unless the contract commissioning the work provides otherwise. If a number of people produce a work together, in a way in which the contribution of each author is not distinct from that of the others, then they will be joint authors, and will be joint first owners of copyright in the work.

Dealings in copyright

Copyright can be sold and licensed like any other property right. An assignment or licence need not be of all the things which the copyright owner has the exclusive right to do, and may be partial, being limited to only one or some of the restricted acts. A licence can either be non-exclusive, enabling multiple licensees to be granted the same rights, or exclusive, which precludes any person other than the exclusive licensee, including the copyright owner, from exercising the right licensed. Joint owners can assign their share of copyright in a work, but are not permitted to carry out any of the restricted acts, or authorise others to do so, without the agreement of all the other joint owners.


If a person does any of the restricted acts without the copyright owner’s permission, the copyright owner (or an exclusive licensee) can bring infringement proceedings against them in court. Remedies for infringement include financial compensation for damage suffered (or an account of profits obtained) by reason of the infringement, an injunction to prevent further unauthorised acts, and an order for delivery up of infringing products.


The length of copyright protection varies, depending on the type of work in question. Subject to certain exceptions, however, copyright in literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works expires at the end of the period of 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author dies.