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This guide covers the ownership of work that has been created by an author or multiple authors, including enforcement and infringement.


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.

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. 

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.

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 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, check the copyright statement of the host website.

If there is no statement waiving copyright protection, ‘fair dealing’ exceptions may apply.

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 at

Normally the individual/group exclusively own the copyright and 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.

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 design rights, and confidential information you can check the best type of intellectual property protection. 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.

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. 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. 

Need more help?

The easiest way to get in touch with us is online 7 days a week. We will get back to you within 24 hours. 
To Live Chat with us, just log in via our Get help page - we are usually available until 8pm on weekdays and 3.30pm on weekends.
If your enquiry is urgent or you need to speak to the advice team, call us on 0345 772 6100, 8.30am-5pm (weekdays) and 9am-4pm (weekends).

Page last updated - 03/12/2019