Development and Origins of the Copyright Law in the United Kingdom

Copyright law is relatively new as it was not properly codified until 1911. Having said that, its origins reach far back as the first recorded statute concerning copyright was the 1710 Statute of Ann. The Bill was passed after the invention of the press and copying of books with the purpose of regulating the book trade. The statute considered books a property and anyone who imported or traded them without licencing had been fined.

The first codification of the copyright law came in 1911 with the Copyright Act 1911. The statute included a number of works that were not included before under common law: architecture, sound recordings and films being some of them. Protection under the Act lasted for 50 years after the death of the author and the work did not have to be published in order for it to be protected. It also abolished all formalities and it did not require registration with Stationers’ Company, so any original creation was copyright protected.

Gregory Committee Report was released in 1952, and following the Report, Copyright Act 1956 replaced the 1911 Act, so it included sound and television broadcast as well as typographical formats of published editions. This Act was amended several times to include new technologies such as cable television and computer software.


A big importance has to also be given to the Berne Convention that the UK is a signatory to since 1986. It included more countries than the European Union and attempted to harmonise the law between them. The Convention specifically dealt with the rights of authors in their literary and artistic work, so its scope was rather limited.

Due to multiple amendments, Whitford Committee in 1977 proposed a revision of 1956 Act which resulted in the passing of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 which is still in force today and it is considered the basis for copyright law in the UK. Most notably it conferred rental and distribution rights to copyright owners, “moral rights” to authors as well as Performers’ rights. In the statute, under sections 29 and 30 certain exemption can be found. These exemptions are non-commercial research, criticism or review and news reporting (except photographs), temporary copies, teaching and education, libraries and archives as well as “time shifting” i.e. recordings saved to be watched or listened to at a later time. All of these exemptions are subjected to a condition of “fair dealing” which means that there cannot be any significant economic impact on the author.

Even though 1988 Act is the basis of the copyright law In the UK multiple amendments have been made under EC Directives implemented by the provision of the European Communities Act 1972 and a recodification of the law would be desirable.

Court of Justice of the European Union has lately taken upon itself to harmonise the existing copyright law among its member states beginning with Infopaq Int. v Danske case decided in 2009 where the court defined the concept of originality which is not limited to the whole work, but it applies also to parts of work, Bezpe?ností case where a graphic interface is treated as work and Martin Luksan case that defines authorship. Following cases try to further harmonise the copyright law in the Union.

Copyright issues have also touched other areas of law hence the Digital Economy Act 2010 and now 2017 that establish a regulatory framework for online copyright infringement.

Big amendments to the 1988 Act have been made by Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 following the Hargreaves Review 2011 which was released by the Intellectual Property Office of the United Kingdom (UKIPO) and also touched on the topic of orphan works which need to be licenced in order to be used.

Considering all the amendments to the Copyright Act 1988 and the fast approaching Brexit date that will certainly change the dynamic between the English law and the EU law, specifically EC Directives, I think copyright law is due for a recodification and possibly a reimagining of some of its principles.

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