University of Texas at Austin

University of Reading WATCH Harry Ransom Center

Locating U.K. Copyright Holders

The meaning of copyright

Copyright is a property right, which authors hold in respect of works which they have created. As a property right (it is often described being an "intellectual property"), copyright can be bought, sold, leased or mortgaged. Copyright confers an exclusive right to exploit an original work. Exploitation in this sense includes the following: copying, publication, reproduction, quotation, performance, translation, adaptation, dramatisation, broadcasting on radio or television, filming, and making available by a computer service or network.

The extent of copyright

Copyright automatically covers almost all original written works. Although copyright legislation often refers to "literary works", copyright applies regardless of the quality of the writing. Copyright subsists in both published and unpublished works, and extends to manuscripts, single scraps of paper, and private correspondence. Published works which have been deemed sufficiently original to be copyright-protected include advertisements; football pools coupons; sheets of election results; lists of Stock Exchange prices; and an alphabetical list of British railway stations. Copyright is time-limited, normally remaining in force for a certain number of years post mortem auctoris (after the author's death, often written as p.m.a.).

The duration of copyright

The time period for copyright has grown continually longer over the last three centuries. Many think it is now absurdly long. In Britain the Copyright Act of 1842 introduced the idea of post mortem copyright protection; it established a copyright period of 42 years from the date of first publication or 7 years after the author's death, whichever was the longer. The Copyright Act of 1911 extended the period to 50 years after an author's death; and the European Union Directive on Term of Copyright (adopted by the UK on 1 January 1996) further extended the standard period to 70 years p.m.a. Thus in 2024 works by authors who died in 1954 or any year thereafter remain "in copyright".

"Revived copyright"

As a result of the European Union Directive, published works of authors who died between 1 January 1926 and 31 December 1945 came back into copyright on 1 January 1996. These authors, including some of the great names of English literature, had been out of copyright since the end of the year of the 50th anniversary of their death and returned to copyright for whatever remains of the period until the end of the year of the 70th anniversary of their death. The published works of Virginia Woolf, for example, came out of copyright on 1 January 1992 but were back in copyright for the period from 1 January 1996 to 31 December 2011.

Duration of copyright in unpublished writings

Unpublished papers used to enjoy extended copyright protection in most countries. In Britain until 1 August 1989, all unpublished writings (manuscripts, typescripts, computer discs and print-outs, letters, marginalia, and all sorts of notes - extending to shopping lists and messages in birthday cards) enjoyed "perpetual copyright". From 1 August 1989 (the date of implementation of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988), the distinction between published and unpublished writings is to be progressively abolished. To protect the interests of living copyright-holders, however, a 50-year transition period has been adopted. So any author's manuscripts (including those of authors who died many hundreds of years ago) could in theory be copyright-protected until 31 December 2039. WATCH has not yet become aware of copyrights persisting from much before the period of Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Since 2013, the British government has been actively considering amending or abolishing the rules on this transition period.

Posthumous publication

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 also abolished previous provisions which allowed copyright in posthumously published works to run for the standard period from the date of publication. Again, however, there is a fifty-year transition period from 1 August 1989. So a poem from a Lord Byron manuscript which was published for the first time in 1980 will have been copyright-protected, under previous legislation, for a period of fifty years, i.e. until 31 December 2030. Another poem from a Lord Byron manuscript which was published in 1995 will have been copyright-protected until 31 December 2039, and any Byron manuscript poem published for the first time in 2038 will also come out of copyright after 31 December 2039. (The amount of British literary material and correspondence which will all be out of copyright for the first time on 1 January 2040 is remarkable.)

Unpublished writings held by libraries, museums and archives offices

A little-known clause in British copyright law (dating from the 1956 Copyright Act, and continued in the 1988 Act) allows copying for "research, or private study, or with a view to publication" of unpublished papers which are open to inspection "in a library, museum or other institution" at a date which is both more than 100 years from the end of the year in which the work was created and more than fifty years from the end of the year of the author's death. This means that, for example, Byron manuscripts in the British Library can be copied without restriction for these purposes. It should be noted that the clause allows unrestricted copying by persons having a view to publication; it does not allow publication (without the copyright holder's permission), except in cases where the copyright holder is unknown. US libraries holding unpublished papers of British authors do not generally consider themselves to be affected by this "100-year rule", and are likely to require the copyright holder's permission even for photocopying.

The distinction between the owner and the copyright holder

Especially with manuscripts and other unpublished sources, it is important to distinguish between the owner of the document and its copyright holder. The owner may be the copyright-holder, but very often is not. Ownership confers the right to remove, sell or even destroy unpublished materials, but it does not confer the rights covered by copyright law. A letter from Thomas Hardy to Queen Victoria, for example, may be in the ownership of the present Queen of England, but the Queen cannot publish the letter or even reproduce it on her Christmas cards, without the permission of the Hardy estate.

Copyright holders

Copyright holders control much of the use that can be made of material which is in copyright, and it is essential to have the permission of the copyright holder before making substantial use of copyright-protected works. The WATCH file has now grown to the size where it is the primary source of information about British copyright holders, but there are naturally very many authors who are not yet included. There follows a list of possible other sources of information, and ways of tracking copyright holders:

  • Write to the principal publishers of any particular author. Some publishers will give information to accredited researchers about recipients of royalties; others will forward letters of enquiry.

  • Write to the archivists responsible for major collections of an author's papers.

  • Contact authors' societies, which may be prepared to share information or to forward letters. The principal bodies here are the Society of Authors (84 Drayton Gardens, London SW10 9SB); the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (The Writers' House, 13 Haydon Street, London EC3N 1DB); and the Writers' Guild of Great Britain (First Floor, 134 Tooley Street, London SE1 2TU). For Ireland, it may be worth contacting the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency (The Irish Writers' Centre, 19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1), and for France, the Institut Mémoires de l'édition contemporaine (Abbaye d'Ardennes, 14280 Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe, France).

  • Contact the Book Trust (Book House, 45 East Hill, London SW18 2QZ), which keeps extensive files of author information, including some copyright information.

  • For manuscripts and primary sources, ask the owner of the documents for information about the copyright holder.

  • Write to biographers or other scholars who have worked on your chosen author.

  • Contact British literary agents who may have had dealings with your author.

  • Check the acknowledgements and notes pages of published works wholly about, or touching on, your author. Well-edited editions of correspondence often give information about a wide range of authors and public figures.

  • Check genealogical and legal sources. For authors likely to have died in England or Wales, the wills which are publicly available at the Probate Office in London are a rich (although time-consuming) source. For Scottish authors, it may be worth checking for information through the Scottish Record Office in Edinburgh.

  • Try author searches on the World Wide Web using search engines, directories and websites such as

  • Send a letter to the author's last known address.

  • Check authors' directories and works such as the Gale Research publication Contemporary Authors.

  • For general copyright information, seek guidance from the Copyright Directorate at the Patent Office (25 Southampton Buildings, London WC2A 1AY).

  • When all else has failed, publish a notice in appropriate newspapers or journals. The Times Literary Supplement is recommended for enquiries about literary authors, whilst a notice in The Times is a recognised last resort when one wishes to demonstrate that all possible avenues have been explored, and a "diligent search" has been conducted.

Copyright © David C. Sutton (UK Director of the WATCH copyright project) 1998-2014