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Copyright protects original:

  • literary and written work, like published articles

  • dramatic, musical and artistic works and their performances
  • television, film, sound and music recordings
  • non-literary written work like computer software, online content and databases
  • illustrations and photography.

In addition to protecting your work, it stops others from using it without your permission.

There is no official registration system for copyright. It's an automatic right that arises whenever an individual or organisation creates a work. In order to qualify the work should be original and demonstrate a degree of labour, skill or judgement.

You can mark your work with the copyright symbol (©), your name and the year the work was created, although this will not affect your level of protection. UK copyright is automatically valid in countries who have signed the Berne Convention for the Protection of Artistic and Literary Works. 

For literary works, the copyright lasts 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies. For information on other forms of work please see the Intellectual Property Office website.

When copyright expires, the work becomes 'in the public domain' and is available for anyone to use, copy or reproduce.

Copyrights can be transferred from one owner to another. On the death of a copyright holder, copyright can be inherited. Whoever inherits the work will become the copyright owner. 

These are protected by copyright in the same way as printed materials. Before downloading, storing, emailing or printing any part of an online document or website, you should check the copyright statement of the host website.

If there is no statement waiving copyright protection, ‘fair dealing’ exceptions may apply. Find out more from the Intellectual Property Office.

Exceptions to copyright law are very specific and only apply in limited circumstances.  If you are in any doubt you should obtain permission from the copyright owner. Detailed guidance is available from the Intellectual Property Office.

Normally the individual/group creating the work exclusively owns the copyright. In many cases, the creator will also have the right to be identified as the author and object to distortions of their work. Protecting your intellectual property allows you to stop others using what you’ve created without your permission and charge others for the right to use what you’ve created.

Work created as an employee

If work has been produced as part of your job, normally the copyright belongs to your employer. You may have a specific clause in your contract that enables you to share ownership although this is unusual.  

Freelance/commissioned work

Copyright will usually belong to the author of the work, unless otherwise stated in the contract.

Student assignments

The author (student) will usually have full copyright. However, some educational establishments may ask you to sign the copyright of your work over to them when you enrol. Check with your tutor if you are unsure.

If you are self-employed or run a small business and want to protect your logos, trademarks, copyright works, patents, designs and so on, you can check the best type of intellectual property protection for your needs. Search the Intellectual Property Office website for a free IP 'health check'. 

Most uses of copyright material require permission from the copyright owner. You would usually need to contact them directly for this. For certain types of works and other subject matter, you can get permission from a collective management organisation.

If you wish to reproduce any RCN publications, information is available under the copyright 'tab' on the individual publication's web page. You can also complete a copyright request form.

Copyright is infringed when any of the following are done without permission:

  • copying the work in any way
  • issuing copies of the work to the public
  • renting or lending copies of the work to the public
  • performing, showing or playing the work in public
  • broadcasting the work or other communication to the public by electronic transmission
  • making an adaptation of the work.

Decisions to enforce copyright are personal choice. If your work has been copied without permission, it is up to you as the author to take the matter further. Where your work has been used without your permission and none of the exceptions to copyright apply, your copyright is said to be infringed.

It will usually save you time and money, to try to resolve the matter with the party you think has infringed your copyright. If you cannot resolve the issue, going to court may be the right solution. We recommend that you seek legal advice at an early stage, and certainly before going to court.

We do not offer local representation or support for members' claims for copyright infringement - you could apply for free legal advice. We only offer advice on your rights in relation to copyright works created in the course of employment.

Professional practice

Read our advice on medicines management, immunisation, revalidation,  practice standards and mental health.

Search our advice guides

See our A-Z of advice. These guides will help you answer many of your questions about work. 

Get help

RCN members can visit online advice for help on a range of issues or to find how to contact us.

Page last updated - 26/02/2024