Copyright Law


Copyright is a statutory right, under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 as amended (CDPA). It came into force on 1 August 1989. Some parts of the Copyright Act 1911 continue to apply in certain circumstances to works made before 1 June 1957 and some parts of the Copyright Act 1956 continue to apply to works made between June 1957 and July 1989.

Copyright is the right to control certain uses of ‘works’. The owner can decide whether to allow the use at all and can charge a fee for any permission granted. The doing of one of the ‘restricted acts’ without permission is an infringement and you can be sued for doing it, unless one of the statutory exceptions applies. If you are sued and lose you might have to pay damages, surrender any ‘infringing copies’ and pay both your own costs and those of the claimant.

Protected works are of many kinds, but in an oral history context the important ones are:

  • literary works (using words or symbols);
  • musical works;
  • sound recordings; and
  • films (including videos and DVDs).

Copyright arises automatically, as soon as the work is ‘fixed’. It may be fixed in various ways such as by being written down (including on a computer disk) or by being recorded for instance as a sound recording or a film. Under earlier copyright Acts this requirement of fixation was not explicit, but there was no copyright until the work was ‘made’, and (from 1957 onwards) it was made:

  • in the case of a literary or musical work, only when it was ‘reduced to writing or some other material form’ (for instance as a recording);
  • in the case of a sound recording, when the ‘first record embodying the recording’ was produced; and
  • in the case of a film, when it was ‘recorded on material of any description’.

There is no requirement in the UK for registration of a copyright work nor for copyright to be claimed. However, if the copyright owner is making the work available in some way, for instance by giving someone else a copy of an unpublished manuscript or by putting it on the internet, it is sensible to attach the copyright symbol © followed by the name of the copyright owner and the year.

Copyright ownership:

The first owner of copyright is usually the ‘author’, the person who ‘originated’ the work. This is:

  • in the case of literary and musical works: the writer, composer, speaker;
  • in the case of sound recordings: the producer, the person or body who instigated the recording and made the necessary arrangements (especially financial ones);
  • in the case of films: the producer and principal director jointly.

If the author creates the work in the course of employment the first owner of copyright is the employer (but note that where the term of duration is based on the life of the author, duration continues to be based on that person’s life). If the author is an officer or servant of the Crown and creates the work in the course of his or her duties, the work is Crown copyright (see below). If there is more than one author and their individual contributions cannot be distinguished, they (or their employers) will be joint owners in proportion to their contributions.

There are separate copyrights in an oral history interview, with separate authors, owners and durations, in:

  • the words spoken by the interviewer;
  • the words spoken by the interviewee or informant; and
  • the sound recording or film.

Copyright in verbatim written transcripts of interviews, made either as the record of the interview or subsequently from recordings, will normally belong to the owner of the copyright in the words transcribed. However, if the transcriber or reporter has used considerable skill to make the written record, perhaps through the direction of the interview or the interpretation of slang, he or she is likely to be the author of that transcript and there will be a distinct copyright in it, in addition to any copyright owned by the speaker.

Copyright is ‘intangible’ property. It may be sold or given away, and must be passed to someone else when an owner who is an individual dies or when an owner that is an organisation ceases to exist.  There are several ways in which ownership can be transferred in the UK:

  • by bequest in the owner’s will;
  • by passing to the next of kin if the owner dies intestate (with no will);
  • by assignment (assignation in Scotland) to another person or organisation. This must be in writing and must be signed by the assignor; or
  • by passing with other assets to a successor body.

Duration of copyright:

The following descriptions identify the principal terms of copyright which will apply in the great majority of cases, but there are many variations. For full details of duration, including duration for other kinds of copyright works, see the Bibliography.

(a) Recorded speech, written text and music (literary and musical works)

Copyright in literary and musical works created since 1 August 1989, and in literary and musical works created and published before that date, lasts for 70 years after the end of the year in which the speaker or composer died or dies (standard term).

If the literary or musical works were written down or recorded (in any manner) before 1 August 1989 and had not been published at that date, copyright lasts until the end of 2039, unless the speaker or composer died after 31 December 1969 in which case the standard term applies.

(b) Sound recordings:

Copyright in sound recordings expires:

  • 50 years after the end of the year in which the recording was made; or
  • at the end of 2039 if the recording was made between 1 June 1957 and 31 July 1989 and was still unpublished at the latter date; or
  • 50 years after the recording was first published or made available to the public (for instance on-line), if published or made available within 50 years of being made, if this gives a later terminal date than either of the terms set out above.
  • Films (including videos and DVDs):

There was no copyright in films made before 1 June 1957. Instead they were protected as sequences of photographs (and also, for fiction films, as dramatic works). For the most part copyright in these expires 70 years after the end of the year of the death of the author (normally the director).

Copyright in films and videos made on or after 1 June 1957 expires:

  • 70 years after the end of the year of the death of the last to die of the principal director, the author of the screenplay, the author of the dialogue and the composer of any music specially created for the film (the standard term); or
  • for films made before 1 January 1996, at the end of 2039 or 70 years after first publication, whichever is later, if this is later than the standard term;
  • 70 years after the end of the year in which the film was made, or 70 years after the end of the year the film was first published or made available to the public if published or made available within 70 years of being made, if the identity of all of the above persons is unknown;
  • 50 years after the end of the year in which the film was made, if none of the above persons worked on the film.

Film sound tracks can have two distinct copyrights. Copyright in them is the same as for the film when they are attached to the film. When separated from the film they are treated as sound recordings.

Crown Copyright:
Material produced by people working directly for the government is covered by Crown copyright, which differs in duration from the copyright to which others are entitled. For more details see the website of The National Archives (see the Useful Weblinks). In practice, the content of few oral history interviews is likely to be subject to Crown copyright. The following points might assist:

  • since August 1989, Crown copyright applies to works produced by officers or servants of the Crown in the course of their duties, such as civil and diplomatic servants, members of the armed forces, police officers and government ministers. Works produced by others as government contractors or (for instance) as employees of projects funded by government agencies are subject to the normal rules for copyright ownership and duration;
  • most employees of museums, galleries, libraries and archives are not employed by the government but by the boards and trustees of these institutions or by the relevant local authority, so any interviews they carry out are not Crown copyright. The principal exception is The National Archives. The contents of collections owned by such institutions will contain works in the copyright of many owners and might contain some Crown copyright items, such as letters from civil servants or ministers;
  • the content of sound recordings which are part of the archives of government held by The National Archives or its designated repositories (such as the British Library) are mostly Crown copyright, but there are few if any oral history interviews among them;
  • Crown copyright applied to a wider range of material prior to 1989, since it applied to anything created ‘under the direction or control’ of the Crown;
  • Crown copyright in films and sound recordings does not differ in duration or scope from other films and sound recording copyrights; and
  • most Crown copyright material is now covered by the Open Government Licence, for which no application or payment is required. For further information see the website of The National Archives (see the Bibliography on page 17).

What to remember about copyright:

  • there is nothing in copyright law to prevent an individual reading a text, listening to a recording or watching a film, on his or her own, and making notes in his or her own words from it;
  • there is nothing to prevent an organisation making available that text, recording or film to the individual alone;
  • other more extensive uses of the text, recording or film might require permission, and will certainly require permission if the use is by or for the benefit of the public (meaning, in broad terms, a group of individuals outside the home), including members of a society;
  • the making of oral history recordings is normally for the benefit of researchers and of posterity, not for any economic or commercial gain by the parties involved.


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