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Subject Guides

Copyright: a Practical Guide

Protect your copyright

Your work = your copyright

You automatically own the copyright in any work you create, until you transfer or sell it.  Unless... your work was created in the course of your employment, in which case copyright belongs to your employer.

University of York staff should note that "the University does not intend to assert ownership of copyright in books, articles (including journalism), lectures, or artistic works, other than works specifically commissioned by the University"  (Regulation 12.2.2).

While your work is unpublished  (e.g. coursework, a musical composition, a private letter or photo album), no-one has the right to reproduce any part of it without your permission.  Even material you have shared online remains protected by copyright,  although other people may 'quote' from it, providing they credit you as the source.  It's likely that your host service (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc)  will assert some rights to re-use your material:  check the Terms of Use.

When you speak or perform in front of an audience, no-one has the right to distribute a recording of your performance without your consent (which may be covered by your terms of employment).  However, the person or organisation responsible for the production of the recording will own the copyright.  Ensure you understand what will happen to the recording before you consent, and keep a copy of any written agreement for reference.

The UK Copyright Service provides a framework for creators of copyrightable material to register their claim on the copyright, for a small fee.  

Unlike a patent or trademark,  in the UK it is not necessary to register in order to acquire legal protection for your copyright. However, the service providers claim that "if an infringement is made on your work, your entry in the UKCS registry will provide strong evidence of your copyright ownership from the date of registration", which may increase your chances of a successful resolution.

The University of York's Research and Knowledge Exchange Contracts office offers advice about registering and protecting other aspects of your intellectual property, including patents, trademarks and design rights.

Further reading is an independent educational resource targeted at content creators and students, with support from several UK universities. Up-to-date guidance includes how to Licence and Exploit your Work.

It originates from work carried out at the RCUK-funded Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy (CREATe), launched in 2012 to consider "cutting-edge questions around digitisation, copyright, and innovation in the arts and technology". Further resources include primary sources and case studies, data from Ofcom and the IPO about online consumption and user behaviour,  and training opportunities.


Researchers at the Institute for Capitalising on Creativity (University of St Andrews) have published the free e-book Tales from the Drawing Board: IP wisdom and woes from Scotland’s creative industries(2015), an inspiring collection of case studies about managing and exploiting the intellectual property in your creative output.


The Copyright Hub is a non-profit company funded by the creative industries and UK Government via the Technology Strategy Board.  Resources include a guide to Your Rights as a creator of copyrightable material.


The UK's Intellectual Property Office provides Guidance for copyright owners on how to grant a licence for, sell or market their work (2016).


If you release your work through a commercial or scholarly publisher/distributor, you are likely to be asked to transfer your copyright to the publisher in exchange for royalties. Check the terms of your Agreement to Publish.  For instance: 

  • Most scholarly publishers allow authors to deposit a version of their work in a subject-based or institutional repository (such as White Rose Research Online) to meet their funder or employer's Open Access objectives.

  • You may be able to retain the right to distribute your work to students or research colleagues, although this is not always the case.

  • Your publisher may apply an open licence to your work (such as Creative Commons), so that others can re-use it under certain conditions.

If you have created a profile on a scholarly network such as or ResearchGate, it's unlikely that your publisher will permit you to upload the published version of your work, unless it has an open licence.  See the guidance for Researchers for more information.

You are also potentially infringing copyright if you share the published version of your paper privately in response to an unsolicited request, although "the legal risks... seem to be very low" (Implementing Open Access, Jisc 2015).


Licensing your work

If you are able to distribute your work independently, without a publisher's support,  give some thought to how you will license your material,  i.e. what you will permit users to do with it.

You might want to indicate that nobody can reproduce it without your permission ("All rights reserved"), or conversely, encourage other people to share, commercialise or adapt it.  A Creative Commons licence is a way of indicating your intention in legally-watertight terms,  whilst asserting your ownership of the work.

Breaches of your licence are not automatically detected, but with a CC mark on your work, you will be in a strong position to approach anybody who you discover using your material in a way you have not endorsed, to ask them to stop (threatening legal action if necessary!).

Source: Pixabay, CC-0

The Creative Commons Licence Chooser guides you through the key questions to consider when deciding which licence is right for you, and provides code to embed the CC graphic in your work.

JISC has published a guide to Creative Commons for Humanities and Social Science Monograph Authors (2011) which also provides useful background for other disciplines.

Software authors can take advantage of the GNU General Public Licence to assert their right to choose how their work is distributed - either free or charged for - and to require other users of their work to respect these terms.

The UK's Digital Curation Centre has published a guide (2014) to licensing your research data.