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Copyright is a form of intellectual property that allows the creator of an original creative work, and subsequent rights holders, to control the copying of their artwork for a limited period. It lays out a framework of rules around how the work can be used, including both the rights of owner of the copyright, as well as the responsibilities of other people who want to use the work.

The creator of the work is generally the first copyright owner. It is possible to have joint copyright owners where two or more creators have created a work or where the rights have passed to or have been acquired by more than one other. Different rules apply where works are created in the course of employment, when the employer may be the first copyright owner. In the case of commissioned works, the first owner of the copyright will be the creator, unless the terms of the contract outlines a different owner.

In the UK, copyright in most artistic works lasts for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years after the end of the calendar year of their death. The duration of copyright differs depending on the type of work, whether it is published or unpublished (in the case of artists' sketchbooks) or if the creator is unknown.

The date the work was created is also important, as the position of the first copyright owner differs under the 1988, 1956 and 1911 Copyright Acts.

While copyright subsists in a work, it can be bequeathed, sold or assigned from one person or organisation to another.

If you own the copyright in an artwork, you have exclusive rights over certain uses of that work. These rights fall into two categories: economic rights and moral rights.

Economic rights relate to copying, licensing, renting, lending, performing, showing the work to the public, making an adaptation of the work or translating a work.

Moral rights are similar to copyright and relate to the artist’s honour or reputation and provide:

  • the right to be identified as a work's creator
  • the right to object to derogatory treatment of a work
  • the right to object to false attribution

Please review the copyright credit lines that are located underneath images on artwork pages. The credit lines indicate who manages the rights within the artwork (copyright) and the image (photo credit).

For further information about the UK exceptions to copyright law see our guidance page

Further resources

Berne Convention 1886

Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 – Intellectual Property Office

Copyright User

Bridgeman Images