Welsh Books Council


Copyright is one of the four main categories of intellectual property: patents, trade marks and designs are the others. Copyright Law aims to protect the creators of literary and artistic material, music, films, sound recordings, broadcasts, software and multimedia, from exploitation of their work, mainly through copying or performing, without their permission. Click here for more information about what constitutes permission and when it is required.

Copyright applies to work in all media, including the internet. Except in a few cases (e.g. when work is done for an employer as part of the author’s normal duties, such as those of a contracted journalist), the author owns copyright over his/her original work as soon as it is written. The author retains that copyright until it is specifically assigned to another.

The guidelines governing most publishing practice are:

Duration of Copyright

In the UK, Europe and the USA, copyright on published work now expires 70 years after the author’s death. Elsewhere, 50 years remains the norm. On unpublished work, the 70 year rule also applies to authors who died after 1 August 1979. For authors who died before this date, copyright expires after 50 years or the end of 2039, whichever is the shorter period.

With the extension of the copyright period from 50 years to 70 years in 1996, works by authors who died between the beginning of 1925 and the end of 1944 went back into copyright for the remainder of the 70 year period. Whilst permissions need not be sought in such cases of revived copyright, copyright holders must be informed of the publisher’s intentions and a royalty may be payable.

Protecting Copyright

In the UK and Europe, copyright law applies as soon as a work is recorded in any medium: it does not need to be registered. However, proof of copyright ownership (which is useful when disputes occur) is conventionally provided through inclusion of a copyright line on the reverse of the title page, as in the following example:

© 2008 Grinch Dowell

[International copyright symbol + year of first publication + name of author(s)]

This notice will normally remain unchanged for as long as the book is in copyright, except that additional dates may be added to cover revised editions.

Publishers often print a notice on the same page, targeted mainly against illegal photocopying, as follows:

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Paperback books frequently carry the following additional notice:

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Typographical Arrangement

A publisher holds copyright on the lay-out of any work, whatever its authorship, for 25 years after its first publication. This measure guards against unauthorised photocopying.

Moral Rights

Copyright law requires that

  • the author of a work be identified whenever that work is published. This ‘right of paternity’ needs to be asserted in the contract between the author and the publisher
  • the author’s work should not be used in a way which distorts the original. This ‘right of integrity’ is automatic and does not require assertion.

Assigning and Licensing

It is normally in the author’s best interests to retain copyright, and these interests are respected in good publishing practice. In those cases where copyright is surrendered, it is imperative that the author’s moral rights be formally protected, as well as payments and any other material benefits which might properly accrue from exploitation of the work. By far the most common arrangement, however, is for an author to grant a publisher exclusive licence to publish his/ her work. (A non-exclusive licence might be more appropriate in some circumstances, e.g. for periodical publications.) The terms of this licence are detailed in the contract.

Copyright and Ideas

Ideas are not covered by copyright law, only their recorded expression. Nor are author’s names, pseudonyms, book titles or items of information protected by copyright. However, the tort of ‘passing off’ prevents the use of well-known titles or names for the express purpose of deceiving the purchaser or reader. Also, it can, on occasion, be difficult to differentiate clearly between an idea and its expression, particularly with regard to the results of specialist research which have not been published elsewhere.


Copyright law is a complex field about which further guidance is available from the sources listed below.

The Quick Guide to Copyright and Moral Right can be downloaded free from the Society of Authors website:

The Society of Authors
84 Drayton Gardens
SW10 9SB
Tel. 020 7373 6642

The copyright sections of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (A&C Black, published annually) andThe Writer’s Handbook (Macmillan, published annually).

The Publishers Association website at

The Writers Services website at

The Patent Office’s website at

See also:

The chapter on copyright in Michael Legat, The Writer’s Rights (A&C Black 1995)

More detailed treatments of copyright are given in:

Publishing Law, by Hugh Jones and Christopher Benson (4th Edition  Routledge 2011)
A Handbook of Copyright in British Publishing Practice by J M Cavendish and Kate Pool (3rd ed. Continuum 1993)
Writer's Guide to Copyright, Contract & Law by Helen Shay (4th Edition  How To Books, 2009)

Help in tracing copyright holders for English-language publications is available from the WATCH File (Writers, Artists and Their Copyright Holders) at

Registration services and general information about copyright are offered to authors by a number of agencies, including

Date last updated: 21 Jun 2013