Using somebody else's intellectual property

Skip contents


You can’t copy or use copyright material without permission. For example, you can’t buy a painting and then use copies of it for a book cover, or buy a CD and use a track from it in a film.

To use something protected by copyright you must either:

  • agree a licence with the owner to use it
  • buy or acquire the copyright
  • confirm that your intended use falls within the exceptions to copyright

A person can give permission if they are:

  • the person who made it (the creator), or their family or heirs
  • the creator’s employer, if it was created it as part of the creator’s job
  • a person who bought, acquired or licensed the rights
  • an organisation representing the copyright owner

You may be able to find out who owns copyright from Writers, Artists and their copyright holders (WATCH).

If you can’t find out who the copyright owner is check if you need a licence to use the work.


You must agree the terms of an agreement with the current owner to use all or part of copyright works.

The licence agreement may allow you to use it for one or more specified purposes and may apply only for a limited time or in specific places.

Exclusive use

You’ll be the only person able to use something for the duration of the agreement.

This includes the copyright owner, who won’t be able to use it themselves while the agreement is in place.

Limited use

You’ll only be given permission to use something for one or more specific reasons, for example publishing a photograph in one edition of a magazine or using a song as the theme for one series of a TV show.

You need to agree another licence if you want to use the material for something else.

Creative Commons licence

Some copyright owners release work under a Creative Commons licence.

You must check what kind of use the licence allows.

When you buy copyright the person you’re buying from transfers the copyright to you.

Once you own the copyright to something you can use it for anything you like, without the creator’s express permission, as long as you respect their moral rights.

You must have a written agreement, signed by the copyright owner, stating that they have transferred ownership of the copyright to you.

Moral rights

The creator may still have certain rights regarding how their work is used even if you’ve bought the copyright.

Authors, playwrights, composers, artists and film directors have the moral right:

  • to be recognised as the creator of the work when copies are made available to the public
  • to object to the work being altered in a way that has negative effect on their reputation
  • to not have someone else’s work falsely attributed to them

Performers, such as actors or dancers, have the moral right:

  • to be recognised as the performer of the piece
  • to object to the performance being altered in a way that is damaging to their reputation

The creator or performer of a piece of work to which you own the copyright must tell you if they want to exercise these rights.

They can choose whether or not to use their moral rights.

Moral rights can’t be sold or transferred in the same way as copyright. They last for as long as the piece of work is covered by copyright.

Performers’ rights

Performers, for example in films or broadcasts, may still have ‘economic rights’ to some copyright material, even if you’ve bought the copyright.

For example, if you’ve bought the copyright to a filmed recording of a play you may still have to pay the actors if you broadcast it.

You may not need permission if you’re using a copyright work for the following reasons:

  • non-commercial research and private study
  • criticism, review and reporting current events
  • teaching in educational establishments
  • helping disabled people
  • recording for use at a later date

You may not need permission if you only want to use a ‘less than a substantial’ part of a copyright protected work. This is decided on a case by case basis.

Generally something won’t be less than a substantial part if it could be seen as an important part of the work, for example a frame from a film or the conclusions of a report.

Get legal advice from an intellectual property professional before using copyrighted material, if you’re in any doubt.

Read the guidance on exceptions to copyright for detailed information.