Some hints on copyright in the UK

If you didn’t understand copyright law before, the current progression to all things online presents a new and unknown territory of legal traps for the unwary. The Internet sometimes feels like a crowded piazza, and it is easy to think oneself invisible in this worldwide forum, but from a legal standpoint that is far from the case.

The IIC seminar on Copyright for Conservation Professionals took place at the Society of Antiquaries, London, UK in March 2016 and aimed, via a few short presentations, to clarify some of the questions we ask ourselves when blogging, re-blogging and passing on or using information retrieved from the Internet. It is easy, with information now so readily accessible, to imagine that the “free-for-all” theme applies to everything. It does not.

The seminar gave very helpful advice for the neophyte, for instance on contractual Third Party issues, which many conservators experience when publishing papers. Routledge, for instance, publish under licence and the author retains copyright to his article. Routledge retain a non-exclusive licence that allows it to establish the version of the work that is to be managed, which becomes the version of record, to publish and manage the international rights to the article, and to represent the author in granting copyright permissions. The author’s original manuscript is known as the AOM, and the VOR is the version of record, which is usually the version of the manuscript after editing and can be considered the definitive version. An author can share his original manuscript, but should not share the VOR, unless it is an open access document.

Writers have the right to be credited properly when someone reproduces their work. Therefore in establishing copyright, one has to establish who owns the piece. The “author” is the copyright owner, but has the power to transfer his copyright, as with any property right. Deciding who the “author” is can bring unexpected surprises: it can be an individual working on his own behalf, but in the case of an employee, the employer is the owner where there is absence of an agreement to the contrary. In the same way, universities can claim copyright, but traditionally do not. An independent contractor owns his work in the absence of a written contract to the contrary.

When reproducing someone else’s work, one must obtain permission to publish: when using extracts of text, one must be clear on the purpose of its use. For example, is it for the purposes of criticism or review? If so, this would fall under “fair use” or “fair dealing” and probably not infringe copyright law, but it is good practice if one is quoting or using a part of a journal, to acknowledge and attribute the source, even if it is in the public domain. Use of works that fall under fair use also include research and/or study for non-commercial purposes.

Do you need permission to use an image on the Internet? The answer is almost always, yes. Using text or images from Wiki does not dispense you from copyright, you may still need permission: if you have redrawn a figure, let us say Donald Duck, you will still need permission under Derivative Copyright. Derivative Copyright recognises that the original Donald Duck is under another copyright, but that the new artwork you have just created also has a copyright. Another example would be a translation of an original manuscript: the manuscript has a copyright, but the translation has a derivative copyright, which allows the new translation to have a copyright, while allowing the copyright of the original work. There is one potential exception to the need to obtain permission: there is an accepted view that an image should be at least 300 dpi for digital reproduction, however some institutions will often allow usage below that dpi threshold without copyright issues. As always, however, it’s best to check before assuming that copyright does not apply.

Most works in the UK and EU fall under the “Life plus 70 years” limitation. After that, the copyright falls into the public domain. What is copyrighted might come as a surprise to some. Works such as poems, music, graphics, photographs, architectural works, models of buildings and works of artistic craftsmanship all fall under the umbrella of copyrighted works. There are exceptions, of course, and these depend on what use one is going to make of the copyrighted work; for instance, taking a holiday photo of Auntie Julie in front of, say, Russell Young’s Diamond Dust poster won’t oblige you to pay the artist; however, cutting Auntie Julie off the same picture, blowing up the background artwork and re-using it takes it back to use of a copyrighted picture.

You should ask copyright permission to use maps, databases, the data from a database, and even images of graffiti in some cases. If you are thinking of using a photograph that shows people about their daily business, you need to obtain their permission for that too. You also need permission to use a name and the likeness of someone for commercial purposes – even famous deceased people have post-mortem publicity rights in some parts of the United States.

Creative Commons licences attempt to address the issue of copyright. These are public copyright licences, which reflect an appetite for sharing knowledge on the Internet, and are increasingly used in the academic field and beyond. These are sometimes referred to as “open access” works and allow authors to share their work with others, sometimes freely and/or under stipulated conditions, according to its licence.


  • A slashed C signifies that the work has no known copyright and is therefore in the public domain. The logo is accompanied by “Public Domain”.
  • A slashed zero signifies that you have designated the work in the public domain and others can therefore use it freely. The logo is also accompanied by “Public Domain”.
  • CC-BY is the most basic form of licensing and allows you to add to, take away from and alter a work, as long as the original author is cited. The resulting altered work is a known as a derivative.
  • CC BY-SA (SA = Share Alike) allows a similar licence, citing the author of the original, but any alterations (derivatives) you have made must be credited in a “Share Alike” condition.
  • CC BY-ND (ND = No Derivatives) allows one to use and share, citing the author, but you cannot make any alterations to the work, however you may use the work for commercial purposes.
  • CC BY-NC (NC = Non Commercial) is in the same vein as CC-BY but specifies that it must be non-commercial, as must any derivatives.
  • CC BY-NC-SA, is as the CC BY-NC, but in this instance, if you have altered the work, you must share it under the same type of licensing – the “Share Alike”.
  • CC BY-NC-ND allows others to share the work; the author must be cited, it is for non–commercial use only and the work cannot be altered. This last licence is the most restrictive.

Copyright is complicated, without a doubt: that is why it is always better to play safe and seek permission if you are unsure. At no time has it been easier to contact institutions, artists, universities, authors and musicians to request permission to use their work. Sometimes, if asked nicely, those copyright holders will actually send one better pictures, or help to represent their work in a better way, by giving extra snippets of information, but don’t quote me.

Some professional bodies can be very helpful in advising on copyright, such as and

Padfield, T, 2015 Copyright for Archivists and Records Managers, 5th edition. Facet Publishing.

** All Creative Commons logos used with permission from Creative Commons (CC). CC was not involved in the creation of, nor otherwise endorses, this article.


Isabelle Egan ACR is an Icon-accredited  independent works of art on paper conservator, specialising in large-format works, maps and papyrus. She has a PGDip and MA in Conservation from Camberwell College of Arts and  a BA Hons in Fashion Design and Textiles.  Isabelle was the first HLF funded intern at the British Library, where she worked in book conservation. She worked full-time at the British Library for over 9 years as a maps and works of art on paper conservator.


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