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Digital skills: succeeding in a digital world
Digital skills: succeeding in a digital world

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4.1 What is copyright law?

Intellectual property refers to anything unique that someone has created and may want to protect. This might include written content, images, photographs, sound recordings and video.

Copyright is an Intellectual Property Right (IPR) protected in statute in the United Kingdom under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988). Other countries have their own legal systems for protection of copyright works. The law of copyright prevents the unauthorised copying of original content (often referred to as ‘works’) in any medium and in any territory.

Copyright in the UK offers legal protection automatically to original works and comes into force as soon as a work is created (authored) and put in writing or otherwise (fixed). There is no need to register or apply for copyright to exist. This was agreed by the Berne Convention, which also agreed to protect each country’s copyright works in their own country. The convention enables countries to trade and be secure that their copyright is protected from any unauthorised use worldwide. This is particularly important when working with the internet and seeing content on other sites which may be hosted in places other than the UK. There are further details on the How copyright protects your work [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] website.

Most copyright works are legally protected either from 70 years from creation (recordings for example) or 70 years after the death of the creator (books and music composition for example). This means that you need to seek permission for use of any work (or large extract) which is still in copyright unless you are making use of any provision/exception in any country you intend to use the work or extract.

Useful resources

Copyright Licensing Agency (n.d.), What is copyright? provides helpful explanations of copyright.

Intellectual Property Office (2014), How copyright protects your work provides a table showing the length of copyright protection for different types of original work.