Copyrights and all that

This site

First of all, just to reiterate my Legal page, unless otherwise noted on the relevant page all the text on this website is my own and is thus copyrighted by myself (David Vines). Again unless otherwise noted on the relevant page you may copy and reuse the text as long as you abide by the terms of the Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The copyright in the images used on this website has various different copyright owners varying by the image. If you click on the image you should be taken to the attachment page for the image where details of the copyright owner will be stated and the license used by this website to the image. For images where I'm the sole copyright owner again you may reuse the image in your work as long as you abide by the terms of the Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

A (short) history of Copyright Law as it applies to the UK

It's worth remembering why England decided to control the reprinting and republishing of creative works in the first place. The clue is in the title of the relevant 1662 act: "An Act for preventing the frequent Abuses in printing seditious treasonable and unlicensed Books and Pamphlets and for regulating of Printing and Printing Presses" - in other words the original motivation was to allow for easier censorship of printed books and pamphlets. The printers and publishers found the act to be very useful - its actual implementation allowed them to have a monopoly over the text of documents and when the act lapsed in 1695, the publishers successfully lobbied parliament for a new act to have a similar effect arguing that authors had a natural and inherent right of ownership in what they wrote (knowing there was little an author could do with such rights other than sign them over to a publisher).

That first copyright act, the Statute of Anne, provided for a copyright term of 21 years1 (which could be renewed a single time for an additional 14 years). There was two justifications for allowing the monopoly - to allow the copyright owner to earn money from the work and for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books.

Of course over time the length of the copyright term has increased. In 1814 the initial term was extended to 28 years and, if the author was still alive at the end of that term, could be extended to the end of their natural life. 1842 saw the term extended to the greater of either 42 years or the life of the author plus seven years (this change also removed the need for the copyright term to be renewed). 1886 saw the international copyright act (needed to give effect to the Berne Convention) while in 1911 a new copyright act repealed all the other copyright laws and replaced them with a single act2. The 1911 copyright act introduced a copyright term of the life of the author plus 50 years. It also clarified that copyright exists in both published and unpublished works since it is deemed to exist from the moment of the works creation.

Then followed more revisions with the 1956 act, the 1968 design act and the 1988 copyright act. In 1995 the copyight term was extended to life of the author plus 70 years (and note that, unlike all the previous extensions, this new extension applied even to works where the old copyright term had already ended, i.e., quite a few works went back into copyright).

Personal view

In my personal view lifetime of the author plus 70 years3 is an inordinately long time for a work to remain under copyright. There is a good reason for copyright to exist4 - to encourage authors to create works. However the effect on orphan works5 basically prevents those works from being used as a basis for further creative works for a long time6.

So I would personally revert to a system where the initial copyright term is quite short (the original 21 year term seems appropriate). I would, however, allow renewal of the copyright term to be indefinitely renewable (say once every fourteen years) for an exponentially increasing fee. The initial fee would need to cover the cost of maintaining a register of works where the copyright term had been extended. If the fee then doubles for each extension that would encourage works to leave copyright as and when it is no longer profitable to maintain the copyright.


  1. or just 14 years if the work was published before 11 April 1710
  2. To be fair the situation had become very complicated by that stage with different rules covering different works such as photographs
  3. It's the calendar year of the author's death that is key marker here, i.e., works lose their copyright on the 1st of January of the year following the seventh anniversary of the author's death
  4. Though there is an argument that in a world where it didn't exist works would still be created - however since getting a copy of the work would imply that you would be permitted to create more copies yourself the cost of getting that copy would start off very high indeed - which probably leads to a world where the pool of successful authors is quite small)
  5. Works where it is basically impossible to determine who nows owns the copyright following the death of the author. For many works even finding out who the author was and/or what happened to the publishing company who, presumably, either purchased the copyright from the author (often as a work for hire) or had a copyright license is just as impossible.
  6. Note: While US Copyright Law has all works published before January 1st 1928 to be in the public domain, this does not apply in the UK - see this flowchart to determine how long the copyright for a work lasts in the UK - though the TL;DR is that if the author is unknown and the publication date is before 1989 it is still under copyright until seventy years after the publication date (so works with unknown authors and published before January 1 1953 are in the public domain, but if the author is known the copyright lasts until seventy years after the death of that author)

Comments: 2

  1. David says:

    Updated to fix typos

  2. David says:

    Updates to footnotes 5 and 6 to, hopefully, clarify the position a little!