Latest update: November 2019

Copyright is one of the laws that protects intellectual property.

You need to know how much of other people’s words or photography you can use.

What is protected?

  • Literary, dramatic, artistic, musical works, sound recordings, photographs, film, broadcast or typographical arrangement (layouts)
  • Copyright does not have to be registered – so just because there’s no © sign, doesn’t mean you can copy it.
  • In order to gain protection there must be some degree of originality, some work or effort must be involved in the work’s creation.
  • Brief slogans and catchphrases do not get copyright.
  • There is NO copyright in facts, news, ideas or information. Copyright exists in the form it is expressed.
  • There is no copyright in the facts of a news story – but there would be in the exact words used.
  • There is copyright in a verbatim report of a speech – skill, labour and judgement has been used in compiling the report.


They own the copyright of their work – unless they have signed a deal handing it over to you.

But in case of letters for publications – they have licensed the paper to publish on one occasion, but still hold copyright.


Sporting associations own the copyright to sporting results and can in some cases charge for reports of those results and league tables. This also applies to TV listings, where companies can make a charge for their reproduction.


In the case of works created after 31 July 1989 the owner is the author apart from work done in employment – where it is the employer.

Papers don’t own copyright on freelance work, even when they have commissioned it, unless a contrary agreement is signed – and many are starting to insist on this.

In the case of photographs copyright is owned by the photographer – but if it was taken before the 1988 Act it is owned by the person who commissioned the photo.

NB: Moral rights – established in the 1988 Act. A person who commissions has the right not to have a picture distributed – think about a wedding pick-up photo given by someone other than person who commissioned it.


The defence of fair dealing has now been simplified and no longer distinguishes between use for the purposes of reporting news or review.

Now you can use a reasonable extract of copyrighted work, so long as the authorship is acknowledged.

What amounts to a reasonable extract depends of the circumstances of the case. The courts often look at what value has been extracted by use of the extract. Does the original work still retain its value?

For this reason there is no fair dealing defence for use of a photograph, as its re-publication extracts its entire value.

Public Interest

The 1988 Act recognises the common law defence of public interest. But it did not define what that might be.

E.g. The Act was not amended to allow publication of private snaps given to the press by the police – Government said public interest defence would allow that.

Length of Copyright

In 1995 it was extended from 50 years to 70 years from the end of the year of the author’s death. Broadcast copyright is 50 years from date of broadcast


  • Claimants can obtain an injunction, damages and under the 1988 Act – criminal penalties.
  • But if you innocently infringe copyright the claimant has a right to account of profits, but not damages.
  • If the copyright owner acquiesces in publication, then there is no infringement.

Online and Social Media

The presence of material online does not make it copyright free. It is in public, but not public domain. But this makes it very easy to copy.

Be careful, some large picture agencies use programmes to detect use of their photographs and generate automated invoices. Breach can be very expensive. One photographer was recently awarded £20,000 for the unauthorised use of one of this photos.

Embedding material from other sites, such as Twitter, is not normally a breach of copyright – but always check T&Cs. Some larger picture agencies are looking at allowing royalty-free embedding for non-profit organisations to use their pictures.

Written by David Banks, Media Law Consultant and Trainer. David runs the Law, Ethics and Copyright workshops for NUJ Training Wales. 

Written By...

David Banks

David Banks is a journalist with 24 years’ experience and delivers NUJ Training Wales’ course on Media Law and Ethics. He is a media consultant delivering training to a range of national and regional media, NGOs, government, charities, PR companies, universities and the police. He is a trainer who has created and managed successful courses in journalism, media law and production journalism. He was co-author of 18th, 19th and 20th editions of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists. He writes regularly on law and the media for The Guardian, The Mirror and The Independent. He is a frequent contributor BBC TV and radio news programmes.


NUJ Training Cymru Wales