What is a breach of copyright?

What is a Breach of Copyright?

Written by Ryan Nevin


Copyright is a legal concept that grants the creator of original works exclusive rights to their use and distribution, usually for a limited time, with the intention of enabling the creator to receive compensation for their intellectual investment. This protection applies to various forms of creative work, ensuring that the creator has control over how their work is used, distributed, and monetised.

The purpose of copyright law

Protection of Creativity - By giving creators exclusive rights, copyright laws incentivise the creation of new works. Artists, authors, musicians, and other creators are more likely to produce original content if they know they can control its use and receive financial rewards.

Economic Incentive - Copyright provides a financial return on investment for creators. This economic incentive is crucial for industries that rely on intellectual property, such as publishing, music, film, and software development.

Legal Framework - It establishes a legal framework that allows creators to control how their works are used, licensed, and sold. This control can prevent unauthorised use, copying, and distribution, thereby reducing instances of plagiarism and theft.

Cultural Enrichment - By protecting creative works, copyright laws contribute to cultural enrichment, ensuring that a diverse range of content is available and that creators can continue to produce new and innovative works.

Copyright can be applied to a wide range of creative works. These can include literary works, musical works, dramatic works, artistic works, sound recordings, architectural works and software, as well as many more.

UK copyright law

Copyright in the UK is governed by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA). This act outlines the rights of creators and the legal protections afforded to their works. Additionally, the UK follows international agreements such as the Berne Convention, ensuring that copyright protections are consistent with global standards.

Protected Works – The CDPA of 1988 protects original literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works. This includes books, articles, plays, music, films, photographs, and software, among others. Also covered are sound recordings, broadcasts, and typographical arrangements of published editions.

Duration of Copyright – Durations can vary depending on the form of media in question. Authors have the duration of their life plus seventy years. Broadcasts last fifty years from the date of the initial broadcast, while films have a duration of seventy years following the final death among principal directors or screenwriters.

Exclusive Rights - Copyright holders have the exclusive rights to copy, distribute, perform, broadcast, or adapt their works. These rights can be licensed or transferred to others.

Infringement and Remedies - Unauthorised use of copyrighted material constitutes infringement. This includes copying, distributing, or performing the work without permission. Remedies for infringement include injunctions to prevent further breaches, damages or account of profits, and delivery up or destruction of infringing copies.

Exceptions and Limitations - Certain uses of copyrighted works are permitted without infringement, such as for research and private study, criticism and review, and news reporting. Schools and universities can use copyrighted works for educational purposes under specific conditions. Copying for preservation and replacement, and for use by researchers under certain conditions, is allowed.

Moral Rights - Authors have moral rights to be identified as the creator of a work and to object to derogatory treatment of their work. These rights are separate from economic rights and cannot be transferred, though they can be waived.

Digital Rights - The CDPA has been updated to address issues related to digital media, including provisions for technological protection measures and rights management information to combat online piracy.

If you are a business that provides a professional service, then a professional indemnity policy will typically provide cover for unintentional breaches of copyright.

Breaching copyright

A breach of copyright, also known as copyright infringement, occurs when someone uses a copyrighted work without the permission of the copyright holder and in ways that violate the exclusive rights granted to the creator. This can include copying, distributing, performing, displaying, or creating derivative works based on the copyrighted material.

Direct Infringement - Direct infringement happens when an individual or entity engages in unauthorised use of a copyrighted work. This type of infringement does not require any knowledge or intent; it simply occurs when a protected work is used without permission. This could refer to copying and distributing music or movies without permission or publishing someone else’s written works.

Contributory Infringement - Contributory infringement occurs when a party knowingly contributes to or facilitates the infringement of copyright by another. This type of infringement requires that the contributory infringer has knowledge of the infringement and actively participates in it. Examples can include providing a platform for copyrighted content, supplying distribution software for copyrighted content, or advertisements encouraging copyright infringement.

Vicarious Infringement - Vicarious infringement arises when an individual or entity has the right and ability to control the infringing activity and derives a direct financial benefit from it. This type of infringement does not require knowledge of the infringement. An example would be a landlord letting out space for an individual planning to sell pirated content. Alternatively, it could refer to an internet service provider that profits from increased subscriptions due to the availability of pirated content on their network, even if they do not have direct knowledge of specific infringing activities.

If you work within the creative industry, media liability insurance can provide financial protection against unintentional breaches of copyright.

What are the penalties for breaching copyright in the UK?

Civil Penalties - The copyright holder can sue for damages and seek injunctions to stop the infringing activity. Damages can include actual losses and profits made by the infringer. The penalty would likely be fines or compensation payments.

Criminal Penalties - In cases of wilful infringement for commercial advantage or financial gain, criminal charges can be brought against the infringer, leading to fines and imprisonment. Penalties for mass copyright infringement or facilitation could potentially see prison time as well as hefty fines.

Moral arguments

Ethical Considerations - Copyright infringement is fundamentally seen as an act of disrespect towards the creators who invest time, effort, and creativity into producing original works.

Fair Compensation - Creators deserve to be fairly compensated for their work. Infringement denies them their rightful earnings, which is ethically unjust.

Encouragement of Creativity - Protecting copyright encourages a culture of creativity and innovation. When creators know their rights are protected, they are more likely to produce new works.

Moral Integrity - Upholding copyright laws reflects moral integrity and respect for the legal and ethical standards of society.

Economic arguments

Revenue Losses - Copyright infringement results in significant revenue losses for creators, publishers, and industries relying on intellectual property.

Economic Incentive for Creation - Financial returns from copyrighted works incentivise creators to invest in new projects. Without economic incentives, the creation of new content would decline.

Job Protection - Many industries, such as music, film, publishing, and software, generate numerous jobs. Copyright infringement threatens these jobs by reducing the profitability of these industries.

Market Distortion - Infringement creates an uneven playing field where legitimate businesses face unfair competition from those distributing pirated content without bearing the costs of production.

Economic Growth - Protection of intellectual property rights contribute to economic growth by fostering innovation and attracting investments in creative industries.

Read about breaches of privacy


Understanding what constitutes a breach of copyright is essential in today's digital age where creative works are easily shared and distributed. Copyright laws, such as those in the UK governed by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, provide crucial protections for creators, ensuring they are compensated, and their rights respected. By upholding these laws and recognising the moral and economic implications of copyright infringement, we can foster a culture of respect for intellectual property that encourages innovation and creativity. It is vital for individuals and businesses alike to adhere to copyright regulations to support the continued growth and sustainability of creative industries worldwide.


About the author

Ryan Nevin is an Account Broker at Get Indemnity™ - he is an ambitious professional who is currently studying towards being a Chartered Insurance Broker.