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Library Subject Guides

Copyright: a Practical Guide

Protecting and licensing your work

Your work = your copyright

Clip art illustration of an old scroll with a quill pen made from a feather

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.

Staff should note that "the University does not assert ownership of copyright in the following, unless specifically commissioned by the University: i. Books and articles (including journalism); ii. Lectures; iii. Teaching materials (except for online learning and distance learning courses); iv. Artistic works; v.  Musical compositions; vi. Films created as part of professional practice" (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While your work is unpublished  (e.g. coursework, a musical composition, a private letter or photo album), no-one has the right to reproduce any part of it without your permission.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.

Icon depicting a hand held microphoneWhen 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

Copyright User dot org organisational logo 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).

Further help

Question mark iconYou can contact the Open Research Team if you have any further questions about protecting and licensing your work that are not covered by this guide.


Illustration of hands exchanging a receipt for a bank note, representing a document being exchanged for moneyPublishers may ask you to transfer your copyright or agree to an exclusive licence to distribute the work (there may be little practical difference between such agreements, even if the work is to be published open access - see this July 2022 blog post from cOAlition S).

You should always check the terms of your publishing agreement so that you understand what rights you retain as the author of the work, for instance: 

  • Most scholarly publishers allow authors to deposit a version of their work (e.g. an accepted manuscript) in a subject-based or institutional repository such as White Rose Research Online. This can enable authors 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.

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

An increasing number of institutions and organisations are encouraging their authors to request an amendment to the publisher's copyright agreement which allows authors to retain more rights to their work. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resource Coalition (SPARC) have further information about retaining rights to your work. This includes an addendum that can be added to your publisher’s copyright agreement to request the retaining of rights.

Funders such as Wellcome whose policies align with Plan S, the Europe-wide initiative for full and immediate open access to research outputs, encourage authors to retain their copyright and require accepted manuscripts to be made open access under a Creative Commons licence. For more information on this see our Funder OA Policies web pages.

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

Creative Commons licences work alongside existing copyright to let other people know what they can do with your work (without having to ask your permission as the legal rights holder).

Licences are denoted by pairs of letters, the first being 'CC' (Creative Commons) with subsequent pairs specifying the conditions that must be adhered to by anyone else using the work.

In some cases a publisher and/or research funder may specify which licence should be applied to your work - see our guidance on Funder OA Policies for more information.

The most commonly used licences for academic publications, in the order of most open to most restrictive are as follows:

"lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation"

​"lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to licence their derivative works on the same terms"

"the most restrictive of our six main licences, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially"

Other types of sharing licences include CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike), the Open Government Licence (OGL) typically for public sector work subject to Crown Copyright, and the CC0 (No Rights Reserved) public domain dedication. These licences are internationally valid; Creative Commons had previously released a set of UK-specific 'ported' licences (e.g. CC BY 2.0 UK), but they now recommend against using these as they are not maintained.

Further resources: