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3.2 What is copyright?

Broadly speaking, copyright is the protection given by law to an author for his or her work. The word ‘author’ refers not only to writers, but also to artists, composers, architects, etc. In addition, the legislation gives protection to people who make any audio or visual recordings or who prepare editions of books, and protection to media broadcasters for their broadcasts. Therefore, copyright is originated by an author, and protects physical forms of the author’s work. Furthermore, copyright owners have the sole right to use their works or to authorise others to use them. Because copyright is technically a form of property, it can be split up and transferred from person to person by gift, sale or licence (or on death). Once it has been transferred, the original author loses ownership – copyright has been ‘passed on’ to another party. ‘Licence’ or ‘licensing’ are terms used to define the permission given by the owner of the IP rights to a third party. The owner may charge a fee for granting the use of a licence and could well impose terms and conditions on its use as part of the licence.

In the UK, copyright is automatically applied to the expression of an idea. This means that an idea itself does not have copyright protection, but if that idea has been expressed in a piece of writing or music, a design, a sculpture or any other permanent form, then it has copyright. You can find out more at the Intellectual Property Office’s [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] website. Copyright in a work is protected by the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which grants the owner the right to prevent anyone making copies of their work without permission. However, there are some exceptions to copyright when you are studying, as the page on Non-Commercial Research and Private Study explains.

For your academic studies, when referring to other people’s work, as long as you acknowledge your sources, and cite these appropriately, most of what you need to do should be covered by ‘fair dealing’ exceptions, which allow the use of part of a published work for non-commercial research or private study, for criticism or review purposes. However, you should always check additional guidance and regulations provided by the institution where you are studying. For example, The Open University Library requires all users to comply with the ‘Eduserv User Obligations’ when making use of online resources.