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Copyright basics

Copyright is an intellectual property right that automatically exists as soon as a work is created (i.e. you do not need to apply for copyright). Copyright law is designed to protect the rights of writers, artists, musicians, photographers, publishers and other creators.

Individuals who want to reproduce the original work of others may need to seek permission to do so.

The Copyright Designs and Patents Act, 1988 (CPDA) defines what we can and cannot do. The essence of the act is to protect commercial interests.

The following types of material are protected by copyright:

  • Literary works (print and electronic)
  • Musical works
  • Artistic works (diagrams, illustrations, photos)
  • Sound recordings
  • Films, DVD's, videos
  • Radio & TV broadcasts
  • Typographical arrangement of published editions

The following activities are restricted under copyright:

  • Copying
  • Issuing copies to the public, renting or lending
  • Performing, showing or playing in public
  • Broadcasting
  • Adaptation or amendment of a work
  • Importing, distributing or acquiring infringing copies
  • Copyright law does not protect ideas for a work, this is where it is often confused with other areas of intellectual property. To understand the various types of intellectual property, and what they cover, please see the Intellectual Property Office website for further details.

  • Who owns copyright?

    The owner of copyright is usually the person who created the material but there are exceptions:

    • If an individual creates material under the terms of his or her employment then copyright usually rests with the employer.
    • By submitting material for publication, an author often signs away copyright to the publisher of the book or journal.

    How long does copyright last?

    Copyright applies to different types of work for varying periods of time: 

     Literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work 

     70 years after the author’s death​​ 

    ​ Films  

     70 years after the death of the director, screenplay author and composer​ 

     Sound and music recordings 

     70 years from when it’s first published 

    ​​ Broadcasts 

     50 years from when it’s first broadcast 

     Layout of published editions of written, dramatic or musical works    

     25 years from when it’s first published 


    The time period runs from the end of the calendar year in which the author(s) died or from when the broadcast or sound recording was made. When copyright expires, the work enters the public domain, meaning that it can be used and re-used for free by anyone without the need to get permission from the copyright owner.