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Copyright for research

Copyright is a right given to creators of a wide range of works in material form.
A letter 'c' sits in a circle to represent a copyrighted work.
© University of Hull

Copyright is a right given to creators of a wide range of works in material form. If you are engaging in research and scholarly communication, you should be aware of what copyright is and how it works.

In the UK, copyright is an automatic right held by anyone who creates a work in a material form, including text, music, photos, artwork, audio and video recordings, performances and databases. The creator has the right to control the reproduction of the work by other people. (Protection of the original idea relies on Intellectual Property rights).

Unlike a patent or trademark, copyright does not have to be registered. Works are automatically protected, whether or not they have a copyright statement or © symbol.

The creator can transfer or sell their copyright to a publisher or distributor. Protection lasts for a further 70 years after the creator’s death, for most forms of copyright material.

UK copyright is governed by the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (amended in 2014). The Act sets out the exceptional circumstances in which copyright material can be reused without the rights-holder’s permission, including some educational scenarios.

Non-Commercial Research and Private Study

In the UK, ‘fair dealing’ with copyright material for “non-commercial research or private study” does not require the rights-holder’s permission, providing the material is fully attributed. The UK Intellectual Property Office has published a guide to Exceptions to Copyright for Research (2014).

“Fair dealing” is not defined in law, but it’s generally understood as use of the work in a way that doesn’t impact on the rights-holder’s commercial opportunities. Making a copy to share privately with other researchers or participants who have no commercial interest in the outcome is likely to be fair. Sharing that copy with industry partners, an audience who have paid to be present, or a publisher who intends to market the work, may be harder to defend as fair dealing.

Research materials you have accessed overseas will be subject to the copyright law of that jurisdiction, which may be more restrictive. Seek advice locally.


UK copyright law allows anyone to quote from published material, “for criticism and review or otherwise”, providing your use is “fair dealing” and you attribute the quote to the original author. You do not need the rights-holder’s permission for an attributed quote.

You may “quote” excerpts from audio, video and images as well as text. If you are reproducing an image, ensure you credit the rights-holder (which may be the creator, a publisher or a picture agency). When quoting text, it’s not necessary to identify the rights-holder in your citation.

If the source of your quote is unpublished, e.g. a private letter or interview, you should not use it in work for publication without the creator’s permission. The UK Oral History Society’s Legal and Ethical advice is a good starting point for researchers intending to reproduce quotes from recorded interviews.

There’s no limit to the length of your quote, although you should be able to justify why you needed to reproduce the amount that you chose in order to make your point. It’s arguably not “fair dealing” to rely on the Quotation defence when re-using material which could have a market value in its own right, such as a poem, artwork or high-res photo (see the Using Images tab).

Your publisher may set an arbitrary word limit for any quotes, beyond which they will expect you to obtain permission from the rights-holder. This is not a legal requirement, but an indication that your publisher is risk-averse.

Using images

Reproducing other people’s figures, illustrations or photographs in work for publication requires care, as the copyright status may not be clearcut.

An image found on a free-to-view website is not necessarily free to re-use, and a figure taken from a book or journal article may have a different rights-holder from the surrounding text. A gallery or museum can claim copyright over its own digital reproductions of works by long-dead artists. Check your source for any terms of use, or a licence statement such as Creative Commons.

When the image you have chosen to use does not have a CC licence, or you cannot meet the licence terms, you may be able to defend your use as Quotation, if it can be justified as ‘fair dealing’. Your use must be fully attributed and “no more than is required by the specific purpose for which it is used”.

If your intended use has commercial potential, or could impact on the rights-holder’s commercial opportunities, it is unlikely to be fair dealing. Contact the rights-holder for permission to reproduce their material – look for a request form or email address on the host platform.

Gaining permission

If your use of other people’s material can’t be defended as ‘Quotation’, you should try to get permission from the copyright owner. Be prepared to negotiate a fee, and/or accept their terms and conditions.

When you sign your agreement to publish, your publisher may ask you to transfer copyright to them, to enable them to market your work and protect it from unlicensed reproduction.

Some research funders provide authors with a ‘rights retention’ statement to append to an agreement to publish, enabling the author to prevent the publisher from limiting access to the work (by paywalling it or claiming an exclusive licence to distribute it). Check the terms of your funding agreement – this will take precedence over any contract with the publisher.

© University of Hull
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