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Copyright : a practical guide

Your work, your copyright

Unless... your work was created in the course of your employment, in which case copyright belongs to your employer.

While your work is unpublished (e.g. coursework, a musical composition, a private letter or photo album), no-one has the right to reproduce any part of it without your permission.  Even material you have shared online remains protected by copyright, although other people may 'quote' from it, providing they credit you as the source.  It's likely that your host service (Facebook, Blogger, Flickr etc) will assert some rights to re-use your material: check the terms and conditions.

When you speak in front of an audience, you hold the rights to any recording made, unless the event is a duty of your employment.  No-one has the right to share audio or video footage of your presentation without your permission or your employer's permission.


If you release your work through a commercial or scholarly publisher/distributor, you are likely to be asked to transfer your copyright to the publisher in exchange for royalties. Check the terms of your Agreement to Publish: you may be able to retain some rights to distribute your work to colleagues or students, and/or to make a version of your work available to the general public to meet your funder's or employer's 'Open Access'  commitments. 

Researchers who have set up an academic profile on a host service such as or ResearchGate are likely to receive requests for publications from potential collaborators.  These services usually hold the profile owner responsible for copyright compliance.You are potentially infringing copyright if you send the published version of your paper in response to a request (check your Agreement to Publish).

Licensing your work

When you want to release your work to the widest possible audience, and inform other people that they can re-use it under certain conditions, consider a Creative Commons licence.  

By adding a CC mark to your work, you're choosing to waive certain aspects of your copyright (such as the right to benefit financially, or to prohibit reproduction), without relinquishing your ownership of the work.  

Breaches of your licence are not automatically detected, but you will be in a strong position to approach anybody who you discover using your material in a way you have not endorsed, to ask them to stop (threatening legal action if necessary!).

Cartoon children with a ball

Source: Pixabay, CC-0

The Creative Commons Licence Chooser guides you through the key questions to consider when deciding which licence is right for you, and provides code to embed the CC graphic in your work.

JISC has published a guide to Creative Commons for Humanities and Social Science Monograph Authors (2011) which also provides useful background for other disciplines.

Software authors can take advantage of the GNU General Public Licence to assert their right to choose how their work is distributed - either free or charged for - and to require other users of their work to respect these terms.

The UK's Digital Curation Centre has published a guide (2014) to licensing your research data.

Further reading

Copyright is a new website (2015) targetted at UK creative industries, with support from Bournemouth and Glasgow universities. Guidance includes how to Licence and Exploit your Work.I

Researchers at the Institute for Capitalising on Creativity (University of St Andrews) have published the free e-book Tales from the Drawing Board: IP wisdom and woes from Scotland’s creative industries​ (2015), an inspiring collection of case studies about managing and exploiting the intellectual property in your creative output.

The Copyright Hub is a non-profit company funded by the creative industries and UK Government via the Technology Strategy Board.  Follow their guides to Protecting your Copyright .

The UK's Intellectual Property Office provides Guidance for copyright owners on how to grant a licence for, sell or market their work (2014).

The THEROS Guide is a commissioned guide to academic intellectual property rights available to the staff at the University of Dundee.