An example of an image owned by the Crown and still in copyright. Ministry of Health anti-smoking poster, 1963. Catalogue reference: INF 13/255 (9)

05 July 2012

This month marks the centenary of the Copyright Act 1911 coming into force.

The Act laid the foundations for much of the copyright law that still applies in the UK and for copyright law throughout what was then the British Empire. It remains the basis of the law in force in some parts of the Commonwealth and beyond, including Burma and Dominica.

Statutory copyright protection

Statutory copyright protection was first given to the authors of published books in 1709-10. Unpublished works were protected by the common law, and in 1741 the poet Alexander Pope successfully defended his rights in his own letters. The Crown had no special protection, but this did not prevent it also looking to the common law. In 1785 the Admiralty did so in a case concerning an account of Captain Cook's third voyage to the Pacific.

Special protection

The need for special protection for Crown works first became more generally apparent in the later 19th century, when commercial publishers began looking to legislation and Ordnance Survey mapping as sources of new material. The Treasury issued a minute in 1887, setting out the terms on which Crown material might be published, and the Controller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office was, by letters patent, given sole authority over the Crown's copyrights.

'Legislative monstrosity'

Copyright law was made almost entirely statutory by the Copyright Act 1911, which came into force on 1 July 1912. It introduced much that is still familiar in copyright today, notably the defence of fair dealing 'for the purposes of private study, research, criticism, review or newspaper summary'. It also gave wide-ranging protection for Crown material. This applied to any work 'prepared or published by or under the direction or control of His Majesty or any government department.'

This definition based on 'direction or control' was later described as a 'legislative monstrosity' by the Chief Justice of Australia, because it was so imprecise. The same form of words is nevertheless still in use in the UK for Parliamentary copyright.

Key events in copyright history

  • Copyright Act 1911 - 1 July 1912
  • Copyright Act 1956 - 1 June 1957
  • Copyright, Designs and Patents Act  - 1 August 1989
  • Crown database right - 1997
  • Information Fair Trader Scheme - 2002
  • Open Government Licence - 2010

Read more on the key events in copyright history (PDF, 0.03Mb)

Read our blog post: Marking the centenary of Crown copyright - open government in practice

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