What is copyright?


Copyright protects creative works and enables composers, literary authors and other creators to be paid for their work. Copyright is the means by which those who create and own works (e.g. music and lyrics) can control who makes use of each work and the circumstances in which it is used, to ensure that the integrity and value of the work is respected.

Copyright protects original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, sound recordings, films, broadcasts and the typographical arrangement of a published edition (ie how it looks on the page). The legal framework for copyright (one type of intellectual property) is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 [CDPA] as amended.

Copyright in a song

Every song comprises two copyright works:

  • The music itself (a musical work)
  • The lyrics/words (a literary work)


Copyright automatically subsists in a musical or literary work provided that it meets the following eligibility criteria:

  • The work work must be original in the sense that it has not been copied from any other work
  • The work must be recorded in writing or otherwise (eg onto CD, tape)
  • The writer is either a British Citizen or is domiciled or resident in the UK (or the work is first published in the UK or a country which has signed the Berne Convention)

Rights of the owner

Subject to certain limited exceptions set out in the CDPA, if you own the copyright in either type of work, you have the sole right do any of the following, or to authorise (eg by way of a licence or assignment) another to do so:

  • Copy the work
  • Issue, lend or rent copies of the work to the public
  • Perform, show or play the work in public
  • Communicate the work to the public (i.e. broadcast it via television, radio, online etc.)
  • Adapt the work

NB: Copyright can only be assigned in a written document that is signed by both parties.

Moral rights

If you are the composer of the music or the author of the lyrics, the CDPA also (subject to certain limited exceptions) provides you with a number of important moral rights, eg:

  • To be identified as the creator of the work (the paternity right, which must be asserted in writing)
  • To object to derogatory treatment of the work (the integrity right)

NB: Moral rights have no economic value. They cannot be assigned, but can be waived.

Arrangements, recordings and printed editions

The work of musical arrangers and editors also benefits from copyright protection.

If your work is subsequently recorded, the sound recording itself will have separate copyright protection. The producer of the recording will own the copyright in the sound recording.

If your work is published in a printed edition, the typographical arrangement of that printed edition will be separately protected and the publisher of that edition will own the copyright.

Terms of copyright

In the UK, copyright in a musical or literary work generally lasts for a period of 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the composer or author dies. A sound recording is generally protected for 50 years – this will be extended to 70 years when regulations currently laid before parliament come into force in November 2013 –  from the end of the year in which the recording is made and a typographical edition is generally protected for 25 years from the end of the year of publication.

Copyright legislation has evolved over the last 500 years to provide a balance between the interests of those who invest skills and intellectual effort, time and money in the creation of works on the one hand and those who want to use and enjoy those works on the other.

Related Links:

Intellectual Property Office

Copyright Hub