Copyright Law Briefing

Copyright law protects certain classes of creative activities. Protected works are collectively termed "copyright works". If there is one area of law that webmasters need to come to terms with, it's copyright law.

The centrepiece of UK copyright legislation is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This statute sets out details of when copyright arises, who owns copyright, how copyright can be transferred, and when copyright may be infringed. It is well drafted, and the starting point for research into most practical questions of UK copyright law.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act has two main purposes:

  1. To ensure people are rewarded for their endeavours
  2. To give protection to the copyright holder if someone tries to copy or steal their work

The online law of copyright is the same as the offline law. The website is conceptualised in English law as a collection of copyright works, legally distinct even if actually intermingled. Literary copyright protects website text, as well as HTML and programme code; artistic copyright protects images and photos; musical copyright and sound recording copyright protect music hosted on a site; and copyright or database right (a close relative of copyright) may protect datasets of database-backed sites. The complexity of copyright protection in a single website can be daunting.

Restricted acts

It is an offence to perform any of the following acts without the consent of the owner:

  • Copy the work.
  • Rent, lend or issue copies of the work to the public.
  • Perform, broadcast or show the work in public.
  • Adapt the work.

The author of a work, or a director of a film may also have certain moral rights:

  • The right to be identified as the author.
  • Right to object to derogatory treatment.

Acts that are allowed

Fair dealing is a term used to describe acts which are permitted to a certain degree without infringing the work, these acts are:

  • Private and research study purposes.
  • Performance, copies or lending for educational purposes.
  • Criticism and news reporting.
  • Incidental inclusion.
  • Copies and lending by librarians.
  • Format shifting or back up of a work you own for personal use.
  • Caricature, parody or pastiche.
  • Acts for the purposes of royal commissions, statutory enquiries, judicial proceedings and parliamentary purposes.
  • Recording of broadcasts for the purposes of listening to or viewing at a more convenient time, this is known as “time shifting”.
  • Producing a back up copy for personal use of a computer programme.


I didn't know so I'm not guilty
There is no excuse in saying ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know’. If you copy things and pass them off as your own, you are in breach of copyright.

It didn't have a copyright logo, so it is not copyrighted, right?
Any original work is copyright, whether it has a copyright notice on or not. If something looks copyright then you should assume that it is. If you are unsure, assume it is copyright.
Common Creative (cc) has different levels, some allowing free use, others preventing modifications, etc.

If it is not used commercially, copyright doesn't apply!
Wrong. It doesn't matter how you use it, copying is copying, however you look at it.

Breaking the copyright laws can lead to very heavy penalties - you can get a hefty fine and even get sent to jail! Some companies are getting aggressive in their pursuit of copyright infringements. Always keep a record of where you got your material, and if applicable, invoices and/or notices of authority.

The main online copyright law resources

Other online law resources


Glossary: Ambush Marketing, Astroturfing, Bait & Switch, Body Copy, Campaign, Content Management Systems, Copyleft, Copyright, Creative Commons, Database, Digital Marketing, e-Marketing, HTML, Mobile Marketing, Trust, Video Marketing, Website, White Paper