Please note that these notes are for guidance only, and do not constitute legal advice.
Permission to quote from or publish a text
There is no objection on the part of the British Library to quoting from a manuscript or publishing a text from a manuscript which the Library owns, provided that full references are cited and proper acknowledgement is made to the British Library. The Library does not, however, accept responsibility for the interests of any copyright owner which may be involved.
Except for material described in the section on 'Quotations' below, permission to quote from material in copyright is required from the copyright owner or from the executors of the estate. The onus of establishing the copyright owner and obtaining permission rests with the applicant. (In a few cases claimants to copyright ownership have made themselves known to us, and this information can be supplied on request, although no responsibility can be taken for the accuracy of such information.)
For an explanation of what is in copyright, see the following section. For an explanation of how much of a text in copyright can be quoted, see the section on 'Quotations' below.
An explanation of what is in copyright for other Library material is available from British Library Reproductions.
Manuscripts which have not been published
Unpublished manuscripts with an author created before 1989 remain in copyright until at least 2039 and until at least 70 years after the death of the author (whichever is the later date). Where such works are 100 years old and the author has been dead for 50 years, the work may nevertheless be reproduced by the Library for the purposes of research or private study or with a view to publication. Permission for publication itself however must be sought from the copyright owner.
Unpublished manuscripts with an author created after 1989 remain in copyright until the end of the year in which the author died + 70 years.
Unpublished manuscripts with an unknown author remain in copyright until the year created + 70 years.
Manuscripts which have been published
Manuscripts published with an author in the author's lifetime remain in copyright until the end of the year in which the author died + 70 years, provided the author was a national of a country forming part of the European Economic Area, or the work was first published in such a country. If this is not the case, protection will normally be 50 years after the year in which the author died, unless the country of publication also offers 70 years' protection.
Manuscripts with an author created and published before 1989 but after the author's death remain in copyright until the year published + 50 years.
Manuscripts with an author who died before 1989 but which were published after 1989 remain in copyright until the end of the year in which the author died + 70 years.
Manuscripts published with an unknown author remain in copyright until the year published + 70 years.
For playscripts, the date of first performance is normally considered to be the date of first publication.
Quotations: How much of a work in copyright can I quote from or have a copy of without infringing copyright?
The Copyright Act of 1988 makes it clear that, unless it is for criticism or review purposes (under the fair dealing provisions of the CDPA 1988), it is an infringement of copyright to quote or copy a substantial part of a work in copyright without permission. However, it does not define what is meant by a substantial part: legal precedents indicate that not only the length of the part, but also the significance of the part and the use that is made of it are to be taken into account. Thus copying a significant small part which could harm the copyright owner could be an infringement, and copying a large part or in some cases even an entire work could be permissible if there is no harm to the copyright owner. This latter consideration may have particular relevance to some of the older or more obscure manuscripts in our collections. For obtaining a copy of a work in copyright for research or private study only, see below.
Can I have a copy of a work that is in copyright if it is for research or private study only?
In most cases yes. According to Statutory Instrument 1989 No. 1212, copies of works in copyright can be supplied under the following conditions:
The copyright owner has not forbidden copying.
No more than one copy is supplied to an applicant, the applicant has not previously been supplied with a copy, and the applicant does not supply a copy to any other person.
If for unpublished material, that to the best of the applicant's knowledge the material had not been published before it was acquired by the British Library.
If for published material, that to the best of the applicant's knowledge, no colleague of the applicant has had made or intends to have made similar copies for a similar purpose.
The applicant signs an undertaking confirming the above, and that the copies are required for research or private study only.
If these conditions do not apply, permission must be obtained from the copyright owner.
Are there exceptions for educational purposes?
The provision of copies for some educational purposes such as examinations and theses is generally free from copyright restrictions, but this does not extend to providing copies for general classroom use.
What about Crown and Parliamentary copyright?
Some works written by or on behalf of the Crown, a government department or Parliament may be subject to Crown or Parliamentary copyright, for which different regulations apply. If you think this may be the case you are advised to contact the Copyright Officer at the Public Record Office. As a general rule, Crown copyright lasts for 125 years from the year the work was created, unless it was published, in which case 50 years from date of publication; for Parliamentary copyright, 50 years from year of creation.
Permission to publish, use, or make further copies of British Library photographic products
- All British Library photographic products, in whatever format, are in copyright to the British Library, and the Library must therefore be informed by the applicant of any publication, further duplication or use of any such photographic product.
- Applications in writing can be sent to British Library Reproductions.
- For material in copyright, permission will also be required from the copyright owner or literary executors, for which see the section `What Is In Copyright?' above.
Permission to have copies of manuscripts which the British Library does not own
Permission to have copies of manuscripts on loan, RP's (copies of exported manuscripts), microfilms of manuscripts in other libraries, etc., must be sought from the owner of the manuscript.
The copyright law for printed and facsimile editions of manuscripts
If the published work is a straightforward facsimile edition using photographic techniques then the photographs from which it is made are protected until the year of the photographer's death plus 70 years. If the photographer is anonymous then protection is until the year of publication plus 70 years. If the work is simply a transcription of an original manuscript then the typography is protected for 25 years from year of publication. If a work is a re-issue of an old edition with a new introduction then the introduction is in copyright in the usual way (author's death plus 70 years) but the re-issued text does not attract a new copyright.
The copyright law does not affect the British Library's right to make archival copies, or copies for use as surrogates, of any manuscript which it owns, or of any manuscript in private hands which has been exported and of which a copy has been obtained under the Board of Trade Export Licence agreement. The existence of such a surrogate, however, does not imply that the copyright law does not apply in all other circumstances.
How is copyright acquired?
Copyright exists by law as soon as the work is created. The British Library does not grant copyright and there are no formalities for acquiring copyright in the UK, or in any country which is a member of the Berne International Copyright Union. Countries which are members of the Universal Copyright Convention recognize the sign © followed by the name of the copyright owner and year of first publication as notice that copyright is protected, whether or not registration formalities are required by the member country. The British Library's Copyright Receipt Office has now been re-named The Legal Deposit Office and exists to receive or claim published books which must be deposited with the Library under one of the provisions of the copyright law, but deposit of a work does not constitute copyright of it.
Copying by hand
There are no restrictions on copying out a manuscript by hand. For publication of any text so copied, however, see above.
Any queries about copyright can be made in writing, or by telephone to The Copyright Office
Specific questions concerning copyright are examined in Graham P Cornish, Copyright: interpreting the law for library, archive and information services (London, 2nd edition, 1997). There is a useful short history of English copyright by Sir Frank MacKinnon in M. Drabble, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, (Oxford, 1985), Appendix II. The Society of Authors and the Public Record Office have also published guidance leaflets on copyright.