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What can I copy

Under UK Copyright Law (Copyright Designs and patents Act 1988), copying the whole or a substantial part of a copyright protected work is not permitted. However substantial is not defined in the act meaning that the courts decide on a case by case basis as to what is substantial.

The decisions are usually decided on the importance/quality of the amount used, in addition to the quantity, sometimes resulting in very small amounts held to be 'substantial' and an infringement of copyright e.g. an 11 word newspaper headline, a contents page of a book.

Therefore, unless you are confident that the amount of the work you are reproducing could not possibly be considered substantial, you should not copy outside of the legal exceptions, without permission (see below) from the copyright owner or under a licence e.g. Creative Commons (CC) , Open Government Licence (OGL). Regardless of your reason for copying, how you are using the work or which of these authorities you copy under, you should always reference the creator. 

Exceptions (Fair Dealing)

The 'fair dealing' exceptions are available for copying from copyright works for specific purposes, provided the copying is considered fair i.e. does not damage the rights owner's legitimate economic interests. Fair dealing purposes include private study, research, examination/assessment, quotation and criticism or review.

What is 'Fair Dealing'?

Fair Dealing is not defined in law but left open to the discretion of the courts in a possible copyright infringement claim. The courts decide on a matter of fact, degree and impression in each case i.e. what you are doing, how much are you copying and what impact your copying has on the work and its market value.

The key question asked is: how would a fair-minded and honest person have dealt with the work?

Before copying under the 'fair dealing' exceptions, you should always consider:

a)  Would your use substitute for possible sales and cause the rights owner loss of revenue?

b)  Is the amount you are using reasonable, appropriate and absolutely necessary for your purpose?

c)  Does the copying meet the provisos of the exception/s you are relying on?

Copying a whole work or a large proportion as opposed to buying a copy would be difficult to defend as fair i.e. would be considered damaging to the rights owner's legitimate economic interests and unfair.

The Exceptions apply to specific purposes or groups of people i.e.

General exceptions which apply to anyone


Disabled Persons


NB.  Exceptions are defences that may be used in a possible legal action and not absolute rights and must not be confused with the US term 'Fair Use' for Education.

Obtaining Permission

If you've established that the work is protected by copyright, your use is a restricted act and doesn't fall under any 'fair dealing' exceptions, you will need to request permission from the rights owner.

Who is the Rights Owner?

The copyright owner is usually the creator (or creators where there was a joint collaboration) unless

a) The copyright has been sold, contracted  or assigned to another person/s  or organisation/s

b)  The work was created as contractual requirement of employment. In this instance the employer owns the copyright.

c)   The copyright has passed to the heirs of the creator after death.

Contacting the Copyright Owner

You must make and document all reasonable efforts to contact the copyright owner for permission.

This can be by any means but the permissions must be received in permanent form i.e. in writing, print or via email as a letter, contract, or licence.  A template permission letter is available here: Permissions Letter Template

Telephone or oral permissions are difficult to prove, therefore a not acceptable.

  • If you receive the permission for your required purpose, you can go ahead and use the material, observing any documented terms or requirements imposed by the rights owner.
  • If you have identified and contacted the rights owner but they refuse permission or demand excessive usage fees which you can't afford, you must not use the work.
  • If you have identified and contacted the rights owner but they fail to respond despite several attempts to request permission, you must not use the work. Silence cannot be taken as assumed permission.
  • Where you can't identify or contact the rights owner i.e. the creator/owner is unknown or the owning organisation has ceased to trade with no record of an acquisition or transfer of the rights, these works are known as 'Orphan Works'.

You can also try contacting  collecting societies or agencies who may be able to provide details of the creator or forward requests on your behalf e.g.

Visual works

Design and Artist Copyright Society (DACS) (dacs.co.uk)

Bridgeman Art Library (bridgeman.co.uk)

Text-Based Works

The Publishers Association (publishers.org.uk/en/home)

The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (alcs.co.uk)

The Society of Authors (societyofauthors.org)


Samuel French Ltd (samuelfrench-london.co.uk/)

Sound Recordings and Music

The Performing Rights Society – collecting society representing song writers, performers and musicians (mcps-prs-alliance.co.uk/Pages/default.aspx)

Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL) – representing the interests of music performers and record companies (ppluk.com)

Or check the WATCH and FOB File Database - Writers and Artists And Their Copyright Holders and Firms Out of Business) (norman.hrc.utexas.edu/watch/)

Unknown or Untraceable Copyright Owner or 'Orphan Works'

You may obtain permissions or a licence from the Government Orphan Works Licensing Scheme via the IPO (Intellectual Property Office), but only where you have evidence of a diligent search to trace and contact the copyright owner or their heirs. This means that you have to be able to show that you have exhausted all possible avenues of enquiry before applying for an orphan works licence. For larger projects, it's advisable to maintain a Rights Management Database so you can easily track your permission requests and licensing, but also any permissions you may have granted to others to use your work.

The Government Intellectual Property Office has produced separate online guidelines and checklists for tracing copyright owners of Film and Sound, Literary Works and Still Visual Art.

These can be found on the gov.uk website under:

"Orphan works diligent search guidance for applicants"

If you require any further information or advice, please contact Kate Vasili – Copyright Officer email: k.vasili@mdx.ac.uk.

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