Copyright or copywrong?

Questions about intellectual property and copyright face many of us working in education. The digital world opens up new opportunities, but also presents new challenges, not least when it comes to making legislation and guidance from pre-digital times fit current conditions. ‘Can I include this image in my website?’  ‘May I distribute this text to my students?’ ‘How can I protect my rights to material I create?’ These are only some of the questions that we may, and should, be asking.

To help answer some of the questions that often come up, the Bodleian Libraries recently ran a workshop on ‘Copyright in the library’. Although specifically aimed at staff working in a library context, the advice and guidance are useful also to others.

It is not possible to capture here everything that was covered in the workshop, so the focus is on providing some very general information, with links to where you can find out more.

What are IPR and CPR?

Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) are ‘rights granted to creators and owners of works that are the result of human intellectual creativity’ [1] Copyright is one of those rights. Others are patents, trade marks, design rights, database rights, and performers’ rights. Some of these are automatic and apply even if the creator does not do anything to gain it (e.g. copyright); others only apply if the right is registered (e.g. through an approved application for patent). More information about the various rights can be found, for example, in Jisc’s guide Intellectual property rights in a digital world [2].

More about copyright

Copyright is ‘an exclusive economic right granted to the creator of original work to permit or prevent other people from copying it’ [3]. In addition to economic rights, copyright also protects the moral rights of the owner. For definitions and details see, for example, The rights granted by copyright [4] on the Intellectual Property Office site.

Copyright is automatic and applies even if there is no copyright sign or other notice. It means that as the creator of a work, you automatically hold copyright over it, and your rights are protected: for example, to be associated with your creation and to specify what others can do with it.

If you are employed to create copyright works, the default position will  be that your employer will own the copyright over them. In the case of the University of Oxford, some kinds of work are claimed by the University, while others remain the property of the employee or student who created them. For more details, refer to the University Statutes,  XVI, Part B [5].

What does it mean for me as a user of these materials? If something is covered by copyright it means that you do not have the right to copy it. You may read it but cannot necessarily reuse the material freely in your publications, lecture slides, for your students etc.

What material is copyrighted? Copyright covers a variety of materials, irrespective of quality or artistic merit, such as books, papers and magazines, learning materials, music, artwork and photographs, films, television and radio programmes, software and computer games.

When does copyright expire? Copyright is time-limited: it usually expires 70 years after the death of the creator. Economic copyright can be sold or passed on (e.g. to an heir or published), but moral rights still reside with the creator (unless they choose to waive them). Even so, it will still expire 70 years after the death of the creator.

That said, the rights to a particular publication may last longer. For example, if a creator/editor has put intellectual effort into collating and converting handwritten manuscripts into a printed book, the book will be in copyright even if the author of the manuscripts themselves is long dead. The layout, illustration and cover of a book are also protected, which may put further restrictions on how it may be copied.

Special terms relate to unpublished works [6], or works where the author is unknown (also known as ‘orphan works’). Use the flowchart on the National Archives website [7] to explore the duration of copyright in different cases.


Copyright is automatic, but there are exceptions which means that there are certain things you can do also to copyrighted material. Many of these are particularly relevant for use in an educational context. More detailed information can be found in, for example, guides by Jisc [8] and the Intellectual Property Office [9].

Fair dealing. Generally you may copy short extracts of something for non-commercial use, for example education or research, assuming that:

  • it is done to illustrate a point;
  • it is accompanied by the relevant acknowledgement; and
  • it can be considered ‘fair dealing’.

There is no strict definition of what constitutes ‘fair dealing’ but factors that are considered is whether your use will negatively affect the market potential for the copyrighted resource and whether your use is relevant and appropriate.

Licences and permissions. Many educational establishments hold licences that grant them additional rights to copy material. Usually this is through the Copyright Licensing Agency [10] and the Educational Recording Agency [11]. It is worth exploring what these licence agreements mean for you. More information can usually be obtained from your departmental or faculty librarians.

In addition, the copyright owner can also grant permissions that allow copying and re-use under certain conditions: for example, by simply declaring that something is available under a specific open licence, such as Creative Commons.

The six Creative Commons licences

Creative Commons is a set of licences that have been created to help copyright owners grant certain rights to others on certain conditions. Owners may opt to waive their rights completely, but they can also:

  • limit use to non-commercial purposes;
  • choose not to allow anyone to alter the work (e.g. crop a photograph or create a poster by adding text to an image);
  • request that any derivative works be made available under the same licence; and
  • ask to be credited wherever the work is used or a combination of the above.

If you publish your material online, you can apply a Creative Commons licence to declare and protect your rights while still allowing others to use the material. Much more information is available on the Creative Commons website [12].

Copyright and WebLearn

WebLearn has its own copyright support site with to information about copyright requirements, with specific reference to the use of learning materials in a virtual learning environment. It has recently been updated (June 2017), and you can find out more on the WebLearn blog.


[1] Jisc: Intellectual property rights in a digital world

[2] Jisc: Copyright (Archived in March 2017, but still accessible)

[3] Naomi Korn: Copyright – Key points to remember.

[4] Intellectual Property Office: The rights granted by copyright

[5] University of Oxford Statutes: Statute XVI, Part B: Intellectual Property

[6] ‘literary, dramatic and musical works that were still unpublished when the current statute, the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, came into force in 1989 will be in copyright until 2039 at the earliest.’ The National Archives: Copyright and related rights

[7] The National Archives: Duration of copyright (excluding Crown copyright).

[8] Jisc: Exceptions to infringement of copyright. (Archived in June 2017, but still accessible)

[9] Intellectual Property Office: Exceptions to copyright: Education and Teaching.

[10] Copyright Licensing Agency:

[11] Educational Recording Agency:

[12] Creative Commons:

Additional links

CILIP: A Copyright A-Z for World Book and Copyright Day 2015

Jisc: Intellectual property law.  (Archived in March 2017, but still accessible)

The Intellectual Property Office: Copyright.

The National Archives: Copyright and related rights

Web2Rights: Risk management calculator.

Image credits:
    Top: CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons
    Middle: Public domain (CC0) via Wikimedia Commons
    Bottom: Public domain (CC0) via Pixabay

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