Skip to Main Content
University of York Library
Library Subject Guides

Copyright: a Practical Guide

Copyright law explained

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 gives the author or creator the exclusive right to copy, adapt, communicate, lend or sell copies of the work, although this right can be sold or transferred.

Limited re-use of copyright material by a third party is permitted in exceptional circumstances, including some educational scenarios.

The CDPA 1988 protects an author or creator's economic interests, by providing a legal framework for deciding when and to what extent copyright has been infringed.

2014 amendments to the CDPA took account of developments in digital technology to extend the limits to scenarios in which material can be copied fairly, and go some way towards harmonising copyright legislation across the EU.

Core principles

Copyright is an automatic right which applies to a wide range of creative works in material form, giving creators of original works the right to control the use of their material by third parties, for a fixed period of time. (Protection of the original idea relies on Intellectual Property rights).

All these works are protected by copyright

  • Literary works - written, spoken or sung. Not only books, journals and newspaper articles, but also letters, poetry, computer programs, and more.
  • Published editions - the typographical arrangement of a literary work.
  • Databases - data or materials individually accessible and arranged in a systematic or methodical way, such as a library catalogue or a stock market report.
  • Artistic works - any original artistic material (irrespective of quality) available in a fixed format, such as photos, paintings, sculpture, buildings, maps and more.
  • Musical works - any original composition recorded in a permanent format. The lyrics are a literary work.
  • Dramatic works - the original non-spoken parts of a performance that are recorded in a physical format, such as choreography and stage directions. The script is a literary work.
  • Sound recordings - in any format. Those that are simply a direct copy of another recording are excluded.
  • Films - original footage in any medium, including celluloid, DVD and other digital formats.
  • Broadcasts - visual images, sounds or other information, transmitted for simultaneous viewing/listening by members of the public.

Copyright is a property right, so can be transferred or sold. The person who owns the copyright has the exclusive right to

  • Copy or reproduce - including electronic storage such as file downloads
  • Issue, rent or lend copies
  • Perform, show or play in public (this applies to literary, dramatic or musical works, sound recordings, films and broadcasts).
  • Communicate or transmit a copy - including putting material on the web, emailing or broadcasting it
  • Adapt material – including translation, or any kind of editing.

If you do any of the above acts without permission from the copyright owner, you may be infringing copyright. Dealing with infringing copies made by another party - by storing, distributing or selling them - is also a violation of copyright.

When the rights-holder is indeterminate or untraceable, copyright material becomes an orphan work. A 2014 amendment to the CDPA provides a framework for Licensing Orphan Works for copying or re-use.

Duration of copyright

Copyright protection starts as soon as a work is created, for a fixed term. Copyright in literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work usually extends until 70 years after the creator’s death. The UK Intellectual Property Office provides more information about copyright duration for work in other formats.

Unpublished works

Prior to the implementation of CDPA 1988, unpublished works remained protected by copyright in perpetuity. This protection was removed, with a 50-year transitional period, hence a work unpublished in 1988, whose creator was already dead, will remain in copyright until 2039.

Associated rights

In addition to copyright, creators of original works are also granted moral rights, to protect their reputation.

  • Attribution: the right to be identified as author, once asserted
  • Integrity: the right to object to derogatory treatment of work
  • The right not to have work falsely attributed
  • The right to privacy of personal/domestic films and photographs

The author can waive both the right to be identified and the right to object to derogatory treatment. However, unlike copyright, moral rights cannot be transferred to another person.

People who enact a work have a performer's right to be consulted about the recording of their performance or the use of any recording. Performers can choose whether to give their consent to making and distributing further copies.


There are some exceptions within the law which allow you to copy material under certain circumstances without infringing copyright.

Most of these exceptions apply to everyone, and are intended to encourage creative and innovative uses of copyright material while protecting the interests of the rights-holder.

Other exceptions only apply in an educational context, and some are designed to enable libraries to preserve material, share it with another library or supply off-site, with conditions.

Several of these exceptions rely on the concept of Fair Dealing, which has no legal definition, although a large body of case law has established some boundaries:

Re-use of a modest portion of a copyright work (<10% is often used as a guideline), fully attributed, for a limited audience, for a limited time, in a non-commercial environment, may be defensible as 'fair'. Courts have been willing to stretch this definition in cases where there is clearly no impact on the market for the original work.

In addition, the University holds several licences which allow members to copy and re-use some types of material in scenarios where no exception applies.

The list provided at the foot of this page  is not exhaustive: the Intellectual Property Office has published a full set of guides to Exceptions to Copyright.

Copyright law exceptions for teaching, learning and research


Within the boundaries of fair dealing, anyone (not only students and academics) can make a single copy of an extract from a copyright work, for their own non-commercial research or private study, accompanied by sufficient acknowledgement.

For example: you can photocopy a chapter from a library book to read at home, or a page of sheet music to practise.


Researchers can copy published text and data in bulk in order to carry out lexical analysis to derive patterns from the dataset.

For example: you are part of a university team researching medical history by using a specially-developed application to log every instance of the word "cancer" and its context in the British Medical Journal's archives.


You can use an extract from any published work to accompany your own work, with sufficient acknowledgement. The context must be fair dealing,  and you must be able to justify why you need the amount you've chosen to reproduce.  Using other people's photos without permission for news reporting is explicitly excluded. 

For example: you can take a screenshot from a website for use in a Powerpoint presentation, or a few seconds of a music track to accompany an animation you’ve created.


When no accessible version is available to buy or borrow, a single copy of any type of copyright work can be made by or for a person with any disability which “prevents the person from enjoying the work to the same degree as a person who does not have that disability”. An educational establishment can make accessible copies for multiple users under the same terms.

For example: if you have difficulty reading from print, you can ask the Library to create a digital copy of a textbook for your screen-reader.

See also: Reading Lists: a Practical Guide: Accessibility


Within the boundaries of fair dealing, any teacher or student can copy an extract from any copyright work for the purposes of "giving or receiving instruction" in a non-commercial context, including setting or completing assessment tasks. This exception should not be used for course reading, which is covered by the University's CLA Licence.

For example: a tutor can include a low-resolution reproduction of an artwork in a course handout, or upload a scene from a film to the VLE, with full attribution.

Advice from UK higher education ICT specialists Jisc Legal in 2014 asserted that "Until it is decided otherwise it is fairly safe to assume that most college and university courses are non-commercial whether or not a fee is charged".


Teachers and students can perform a literary, dramatic or musical work for an internal audience, or play a sound recording, film or broadcast for the purpose of instruction.

For example: A student ensemble can screen a film while performing the soundtrack live to an audience of fellow students and tutors for an assignment.

This exception does not cover:

  • making copies of sheet music for performers to use
  • performing/showing an entire work in an extra-curricular context, or inviting a non-University audience (you may need a licence from FilmBank, PPL or PRS for Music)
  • recording a performance
  • uploading a sound recording, film or broadcast to the VLE (broadcasts are covered by the University's ERA Licence)